University of Kent celebrates 50 years

First intake of students arrive at Eliot College

First intake of students arrive at Eliot College - Credit: Archant

Fifty years ago Kent underwent an educational revolution when the county’s first university opened its doors to 500 new students in Canterbury; today there are 20,000

The University of Kent in Canterbury represented one of many similar institutions that had opened up across England as part of the reform of higher education in the 1960s.

“A new generation of universities came to life during that decade as successive Governments attempted to expand the number of people entering higher education,” explains Professor Keith Mander, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Chair of the 50th anniversary programme.

These included the universities at Lancaster, Warwick and Sussex which, like Kent, were built as campuses on the edge of existing towns and cities.

In contrast to the ancient universities and their red-brick successors, this modern generation of institutions was purpose-built, often embracing modern architectural design. They are often termed ‘plate-glass’ universities, as many contain wide expanses of plate glass in steel or concrete frames.

When the University first opened in October 1965, there were just 500 students and 150 members of staff on a rather muddy greenfield site. By contrast, today the University can boast 20,000 students and more than 3,000 members of staff.

“And that’s not the only measure of our growth and success,” adds Professor Mander. “Kent is now ranked 20th in The Guardian University Guide, is in the top 80 universities worldwide that are younger than 50 years old and placed third on overall satisfaction by the National Student Survey.”

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Kent has also blossomed internationally. Not only does it have just over 3,000 international students (drawn from 134 countries) and has developed partnerships with more than 100 universities in mainland Europe, it has also established teaching centres in several European capitals, including Paris, Rome and Athens.

“At home the University of Kent at Canterbury is also no longer just that,” explains Professor Mander.

“We now have a campus at Medway, shared with two other higher education institutions. Our Medway campus focuses on creative, professional and practice-based provision, delivered to 2,500 students.”

The huge expansion of the University since its founding and its success since is cause for much celebration. But according to Professor Mander, marking the 50th anniversary is about the future too.

“Fifty years is something of a pivot point, a nice round number that gives us the opportunity to look back but to also look forward, a chance to take stock, appreciate where we have come from and to look at where we are going,” he says.

“So while we are celebrating the past, such as by inviting many members of our alumni back to the University, we are also tying the celebrations into the future too.

“For example, we are raising £1m for The Kent Opportunity Fund by September 2015, which will support a broad range of scholarships, student projects and bursaries in the coming years.”

The celebration of the 50th anniversary began last October with launch ceremonies at both the Canterbury and the Medway campuses. Since then, anniversary related events have been taking place, something that will continue throughout this year.

These have included, lectures by University staff, a special edition of the quiz show QI (featuring participants with a link to the University) and a number of student-led history projects to showcase the University’s first 50 years.

Key to this latter aspect of the 50th celebrations has been the recent creation of a University of Kent central archive, which aims to house and preserve the corporate and community memory of the institution.

“This has been an important development,” says University Archivist Ann MacDonald. “Both during the celebrations and in the future, the University needs to access the wealth of documentation that exists about its past. It’s something that underpins our understanding of that past, enabling us to learn from it and form a more comprehensive understanding of our shared history.”

Kent University does not, of course, exist in isolation. Throughout its history it has interacted with the wider community of the county, shaping Kent in many ways. Because of this, Ann thinks that the 50th anniversary is something that should be celebrated by the entire county.

“Socio-economically, the University has had an enormous effect upon the surrounding area. We are a multi-million pound business after all, arguably one of the biggest in the county. Just think of the money spent by staff and students too, the outside services used by the campus and the many people employed in a non-teaching capacity.

“We also bring talented people to Kent, many of whom settle here, bringing their expertise and skills to Kent’s economy.”

The University is also very active within the local voluntary sector. Last year students volunteered ovemore than 100,000 hours within the local community and the Rag Week managed to raise £130,000 for charities, many of which had a local dimension.

“We were keen from the beginning to ensure that the student aspect of the anniversary celebrations encompasses our community work” says Tammy Naidoo, current NUS president at the University.

“It was important for us, in this year when so much attention is focused on the University, that we should counter the stereotypical image of students with the reality, which is that students are people who work hard and who care about the community they are living in.

“And so this year we will be making an extra effort to get out into that community to make a difference to peoples’ lives.”

With 50 years to look back upon, it is obvious that plenty has changed. “But it’s not just what you see physically here today,” adds Professor Mander.

“We are fundamentally a different institution to the one that existed back 1965. Bigger, more ambitious and with genuine international reach, the University of Kent has succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of those who founded this wonderful institution all those years ago.”

The University is also much more inclusive today, possessing a much healthier female to male ratio (44:55 back in 1965 compared to 52:48 today) and more students drawn from differing ethnic backgrounds.

But despite the many welcome changes, Professor Mander feels that there is also continuity: “On a purely aesthetic level, if you look at pictures of students from the 1960s, then they don’t actually look a lot different to many of those here today!

“But beyond this, our core values share so much with those lain down when the University was founded. The University still educates, still researches, still prepares people for work. It also continues to promote a common culture and common standards of citizenship, specifically equality of opportunity.

“In short, despite the many changes, this is still the kind of educational institution that our founders envisioned.”

The University is one of the county’s true success stories. Over the past 50 years it has grown in size, numbers and reputation to become an institution that Kent can be really proud of.

Events are taking place across the year, many of which are open to the wider community. It’s a chance for us all to celebrate an important local success.

“We welcome anyone,” says Professor Mander. “The University is very much part of the county, and whether you have a connection with it or not, feel free to come and celebrate with us and share in this important year.” n

Find out more

The University of Kent,

The Registry,

Canterbury CT2 7NZ

01227 764000 or postmaster@kent.ac.uk

www.kent.ac.uk/50

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