Our Subject Leader Dr Drew Gray shares his experiences as a student at Northampton before his academic career here! The takeaway: it’s never too late to go to university. You might even end up as a head of department there one day!
‘In England justice is open to all, like the Ritz Hotel’
I used that quote at the beginning of my first academic book, a study of the late eighteenth magistrate courts in the City of London. I’d not long completed my PhD at the University of Northampton where I’d been supervised by a brilliant historian of crime, Professor Peter King.
I was fortunate to get a second chance at a university education; despite going to a very good grammar school in the 1970s I flunked my A Levels and failed to get into either of my two choices: York or Warwick. It was a bit of a shock as all my grades in History and English up till then had been high Bs or As. I sailed through Government & Politics (with an A) but was awarded ‘O’ level grades in my other A level exams.
As a mature adult (well sort of) I was working in Northamptonshire and decided on a career change: I decided to go to my local university, which had just validated a new BA History degree programme.
That was in 1995, I was 32.
I did well, the only first-class degree in my cohort, thanks to a lot of support from some fantastic lecturers (one of whom is now Northampton’s Dean of Research, Cathy Smith). I stayed on, did a PhD with Pete, and, eventually secured a job here.
Today I am head of Humanities, running the English & Creative Writing and History teams.
Mine isn’t a ‘rags to riches’ story. I come from a middle-class family in North London although not one with a tradition of going to university. One of my brothers has a law degree from Nottingham Trent and my mother studied with the Open University as an adult. My father left school at 16 and his family were not ‘academic’.
But I got the chance to study a subject I love because there was a university on my doorstep. I could not have gone away to uni at 32, I had a job and ties to where I lived (Northampton). If Northampton hadn’t had a History degree I wouldn’t have studied History at all. After published that first book I’ve written five more, the most recent of which is out in September this year.
None of that would have happened without Northampton University. I was able to go to university because I didn’t have to pay fees and I even got a small grant. I held down three part time jobs throughout my UG and PG studies but getting myself through university was still not easy financially.
It is even harder now for young people from lower middle and working class backgrounds whose families do not have deep pockets. And, in the midst of a global pandemic which has seen tens of thousands lose their jobs, and on the back of a decade of austerity, who does have deep pockets?
University has not always been open to all; it has been restricted to those that can afford it or who are supposedly ‘entitled’ to it. The University of London voted in 1868 to admit women for the very first time. Not on equal terms to men of course, women weren’t awarded degrees for another decade. The first female professor – Millicent Mackenzie – was appointed in 1904.
Of course, none of this should surprise us; women didn’t have the vote until 1918 (1928 on equal terms with men). But we should ask ourselves whether higher education should be something reserved for only a small selection of the population? It seems obvious to me that we should be encouraging as many people (young or any age) to go to university as possible.
And people of all classes should be able to study subjects I loved like English and History. These are wonderful subjects for developing your critical thinking, oral and written presentation, and research skills. Graduates in humanities subjects make excellent teachers, lawyers, civil servants, and researchers. They are equally comfortable in the world of business and advertising, in heritage, in film, television and journalism.
Why wouldn’t you want the youth of modern Britain, from Surrey to Solihull, from Newport in Wales to Newquay in Cornwall, from a Surbiton semi to a Moss Side high-rise, to study the culture and history of the UK? Why wouldn’t you want them to learn how to critique the society they have grown up in, to challenge the status quo that continues to (mostly) exclude so many from reaching the highest offices of the land (in politics, business, and the judiciary).
Why wouldn’t you want to provide these young people with the analytical tools to examine the state of society and ask if it is fair that 2 of the last 3 Prime Ministers were educated at Eton?
I don’t teach my students to think like me, I teach them to think for themselves. They can make their own minds up about how to vote or what to do with the rest of their lives. I just help them develop the tools to make informed choices.I am proud to work for an HE institution that serves its local community as well as a much wider one. I think it is vital that those who want to can study locally, can study what they want to (not what is deemed ‘appropriate’ based on their social class). If we are not careful we are going to lose courses at universities like mine, or, worse, lose some post 92 institutions altogether. The current government is not doing a terribly good job of protecting the HE sector and, ultimately, it is the future generation of working class young people that will suffer as a result.
Education should be open to all, at all levels. It is, after all, one of the ways that we can promote social change and equality.
Having undermined the safety of the older generation (with its lackadaisical attitude towards CV-19) I fear the current administration is endangering the futures of the younger generation. And that is something that should worry all of us.
Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities, University of Northampton