In October 1921 nine young women were admitted to Leicester's new University College. Eighty years later more than 4,000 men and women enrolled at the University of Leicester, including some 2,400 undergraduates - the highest student intake in its history.
They arrived in very different worlds. Those nine young pioneers embarked on their academic careers just three years after an estimated 10 million had perished in the First World War, most of them young people of student age. The building had previously been a wartime hospital and the College was established to commemorate the victims of the war.
College rules were strict. One student felt obliged to hide a bottle of sherry under her gown when a member of staff walked into the kitchen during the making of a trifle, and by today's standards accommodation was spartan even as late as 1957 when the University College received its University Charter. Dr Wendy Hickling (née Baldwin) - the first graduand to be presented with a University of Leicester degree rather than the London degree offered by the University College - admitted: "In our rooms with outstretched arms you could touch each wall. You were allowed five items on your dressing table and nothing on the radiator. If you contravened this rule your surplus items were confiscated and you had to pay to get them back." A rising bell awoke the students at 7.30am during the week and 8.00am at weekends.
The University's history is enshrined in the names of the buildings, from its founding fathers, including Mr Thomas Fielding Johnson, Dr F W Bennett, Dr Rattray and Dr Astley Clarke, to the Ken Edwards, Maurice Shock and Robert Kilpatrick Buildings, commemorating two more recent Vice-Chancellors and a Dean of Medicine.
The novelist C P Snow was the first in a long line of famous people to have studied at the University over the years. Others include another novelist, Malcolm Bradbury, who was later to write in glowing terms in the Times Literary Supplement about the late founding Professor of English, Arthur Humphreys. Other prestigious former students include the Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir John Stevens, British High Commissioner to India Sir Rob Young KCMG, City businesswoman Carol Galley, war correspondent Michael Nicholson OBE, television presenter Sue Cook, comedian Bob Mortimer, travel writer and broadcaster Pete McCarthy, Astronomer and broadcaster Heather Couper, Gulf War hero John Peters and international landmines campaigner Chris Moon MBE.
Sir Liam Donaldson and Sir Rob Young were among eleven public figures to receive honorary degrees from the University in its 80th Anniversary "honours" in July 2001. Speaking of the pleasure this gave him, Sir Rob said: "The University of Leicester has had a very formative influence on my life and career. I feel deeply privileged to be receiving an Honorary LLD. It will strengthen my links with - and affection for - the University." Mrs Jean Humphreys, wife of the late Professor Humphreys also received an honorary degree for her commitment to the University spanning 50 years. She said: "It has been a rare pleasure and privilege to be in at the birth of a university and to see it grow through succeeding stages to the large and flourishing institution it is today. I have known some of the people whose generosity and vision created the University College, and all of the Principals and Vice-Chancellors who guided it on its way from 1947 to this day."
The actor and film director Lord Attenborough and his naturalist brother Sir David Attenborough grew up on campus during the years their father was Principal of the University College and still retain a lively interest in the University, while the poet Philip Larkin was a librarian at the University during the late 1940s.But if some of the University's people have become famous names, its research record is no less prestigious. It was here, in the Department of Genetics, that Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys discovered DNA genetic fingerprinting, techniques which have revolutionised crime investigation and paternity cases across the world.
The University is home to one of Europe's biggest space research groups and since 1967 not a year has passed without some Leicester-built instruments being launched into Space. The National Space Centre, the Millennium Landmark Project for the East Midlands was founded by the University and the City Council, while the University plays a major role in developing Beagle 2, the Mars Lander which may discover life on Mars.
The University's Law Department has been cited by the country's leading 100 law firms among the top ten in the country, while the Management Centre has received the much sought-after AMBA accreditation for its MBA degrees. Leicester houses 60 specialist centres. The School of Historical Studies is one of the largest in England and Wales, while the departments of English Local History and Museum Studies are unique in their fields worldwide. The Centre for Mass Communications Research is one of the oldest of its kind, while the School of Archaeological Studies is renowned internationally for its research.
During this anniversary year, the University has been acclaimed among the top 20 in the country by both the Financial Times and the Sunday Times. It has continued its record run of Excellent teaching scores from the Government's Quality Assurance Agency, with a total of 18 subject areas now deemed to be excellent for teaching.
Research funding has exceeded £33 million and in the national Research Assessment Exercise 84 per cent of all staff were considered to be conducting research of national and international quality.
During celebrations of the 140th anniversary of Vaughan College and the inauguration of the Leicester Institute of Lifelong Learning, Secretary of State for Education Estelle Morris commended the University as a "national leader" in widening participation and social inclusion, which still maintained a high quality of education and research.
Now one of the county's biggest employers, the University has an annual turnover of over £130 million. Its six faculties span more than 220 undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes, and it is Britain's largest provider of postgraduate education.
An anniversary is not just a time for looking back with pride but it is also important to look to the future. Addressing the University's Court, the Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess outlined £31 million development plans that will result in two new buildings for space and biomedical research, the creation of new laboratories and the provision of state of the art resources. A £3 million refurbishment programme will also be carried out, benefiting a number of departments including Archaeology, Chemistry, and Psychology.
The Vice-Chancellor said: "The University of Leicester plays a pivotal role in raising the profile of the city, county and region. In celebrating our 80th Anniversary, we stand at a pivotal point in our development. I have every confidence that this University, thanks to its staff and students, is going to be an even greater success."
[feature, Leicester Graduates' Review, Summer 2002]
Find out about the University's 80th Anniversary events: http://www.le.ac.uk/press/80th/university80th.html
For more information about Graduate Relations, visit www.le.ac.uk/alumni
Last updated: 24 May 2002 17:00
Created by: Rachel Tunstall
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