The Red Brick Rubric

Napoleon had finally been defeated, and once more Britain sat relatively unchallenged on the imperial throne. Between Napoleon’s exile in 1814 to the onset of WW1, Britain subsumed over 10 million square miles of territory and 400 million people into its already distended empire.  New technologies, notably the steamship and telegraph, were chiefly responsible for this feat, and epitomized the prevailing attitudes of the century. Cue Red Brick Universities. Non-collegiate institutions that favored practical skills to academia sprang up in the major industrial cities of England, fueling tremendous advances in civic science and engineering.  And you guessed it, they were constructed with burgundy building blocks. Originally called Red Brick Universities (RBUs) as a derogatory term, the name stuck and was later adopted by their proponents, much like the Big Bang or the Suffragettes.

Straight from the off, RBUs were reviled by the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. In contrast to these long-standing, prestigious colleges that required the stringent 39 Articles test of loyalty to the Catholic Church for admittance, not to mention a Baron- or Marquis- stapled to the front of your name, RBUs permitted people of all backgrounds; how dare they! Luckily, the snobs at Oxbridge were ignored (the best course of action FYI, it really annoys them), and RBUs now stand as a pillar of higher education in the British Isles.  At present, eight of the nine recognized RBUs are members of the Russell group that receives over two thirds of all research grant money in the UK. Among the alumni of RBUs are Hans Kreb (Sheffield), Peter Medawar (Birmingham), and Ernest Rutherford (Manchester), all titans in their respective fields.

RBUs have overcome the elitism of other institutions, have proven the distinction between pure and applied research to be artificial, and helped Britain cement its position as the dominant global power.  This list of achievements is even more impressive given that these institutions emerged simply to provide a practical education to the working classes. From humble beginnings, as they say.

One Reply to “The Red Brick Rubric”

  1. Interesting bit of history. Seems talent really does transcend wealth and title, as long as the opportunity is given to foster it. The flip side of the coin is when someone has tremendous talent but has never had the opportunity to fully develop and use it. An example is Christopher Langan, someone extraordinarily gifted but was set back by financial and other difficulties. Though this was a few decades back, we still have a long way to go to further grant access to higher education.

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