Address given at a Service to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the University of Westminster
30 January 2014 at 12:00 pm
The Baroness Cox,
‘I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord”’ for there is no more appropriate place to celebrate the traditions and achievements of our distinctive and influential University—where I was privileged to study—than in this great Abbey, enshrining our cultural heritage with so many memorials to our nation’s greatest scholars, scientists, and writers.
Thank you for giving me the great privilege of speaking on this historic occasion, when we remember the foundation on August 6th 1838 the Polytechnic, with its illustrious history rooted in pioneering developments in photography and film to planning the marathon for the 1908 Olympics.
Such early developments laid the foundation for the distinctive characteristics of polytechnics: a focus on vocational higher education with close links to the professions; an emphasis on the priority of teaching with applied research valued for enhancing the educational agenda.
The Polytechnic also pioneered access to higher education for women. The obituary to Alice Hogg in the Polytechnic Magazine of August 1918 gives a glimpse into her vision for girls’ education:
'As Mr Hogg’s …. attention was increasingly concentrated on the needs of ‘his boys’… had it not been for his wife’s continuous interest in the girls who had benefitted by his earlier attempts to share all good things, they would probably have had little or no place in the final development of the Polytechnic. Largely owing to her insistence, however, in 1888 No. 15 Langham Place was opened as an Institute for girls, similar in organisation, aims and ideals to that great Institution at 309 Regent Street…. From this time on the ‘Girls’ Poly’ became more and more Mrs Hogg’s special care and until her last illness the majority of her evenings were spent there.’ It just needs someone to welcome them’, she would say with a gentle smile.’
I believe I have been given the privilege of speaking on this historic occasion because, being of an advanced age, I was—and always will be—a grateful beneficiary of the University in one of its most brilliant periods; the days of the Regent Street Polytechnic.
I was a beneficiary of the distinctive opportunities made available by the Regent Street Polytechnic which were life-changing for me and without which my life would have been greatly impoverished. The combination of the opportunity for part-time study, the diversity of students, and the quality of teaching provided an inspiring learning environment.
When I left school I disappointed everyone by announcing that, rather than fulfilling expectations that I would apply for Oxbridge, I felt a calling to become a nurse—a decision I never regretted. However, soon after taking up my first nursing post, I had the best nursing education anyone could have—six months as a patient with renal TB.
That removed me from clinical nursing, and it was then I decided I wished to study for a degree—but where? Now married with small children, the traditional route of a three-year full-time course was impossible. I discovered Regent Street Polytechnic—available, flexible, superb teaching, and a fascinating peer group of students.
My classes included a stimulating range of people from those who had dropped out of education to graduates in other subjects who wanted to embark on more vocational courses, such as a Cambridge graduate in natural sciences who wanted to move into the Probation Service and an Anglican priest who wished to develop counselling skills. The opportunity to study part-time for a degree at the Poly opened up career avenues for us all.
I shall end this personal biography with the story of one of my first and humbling experiences as a new graduate, a story with a moral at the end! I had embarked on my first academic teaching appointment at another Poly and we were celebrating the achievements of our students. One had achieved his life-time ambition: to continue post-graduate studies at Cambridge. A few months after he embarked on his studies there, he phoned, asking to see me. I was delighted: it’s always good to keep in touch with former students. He sat in my office, looking rather anxious, I thought; so I put on that kind of encouraging, therapeutic smile staff use if we want students to talk about problems. He began ‘Oh! Caroline, you have no idea what a relief it is...’ I thought, ‘You are right! He does have a problem. So I smiled more benignly and therapeutically. He continued, ‘You have no idea what a relief it is to come back here and talk to someone less intelligent than I am.’ At that moment my smile became a little fixed...
But the moral of the story was that this episode made me feel very humble, and being humble is what education is all about: realising there is always so much more to learn.
I return to my tribute, to the distinctive characteristics and path-breaking achievements of our University. When the binary system dissolved into the transition of polytechnics into universities, the University of Westminster retained the distinctive and significant traditions of its polytechnic history while moving forward to take its place as the internationally respected University whose achievements we celebrate today.
175 years on, our University’s distinctive agenda includes continuing commitments to encouraging access for a very diverse student body, from this country and abroad; excellence in teaching; provision of professional qualifications, from traditional philanthropic professions to the latest state-of-the-art achievements in the competitive, fast-moving world of modern media; all underpinned by cutting-edge, practice-informed research.
Only last week, we received first stage approval from the Department of Education to establish a University Technical College in collaboration with the Sir Simon Milton Foundation, Network Rail, Westminster City Council, and partners from Westminster colleges, to develop technical skills in transport engineering and construction, providing direct routes into employment as well as routes to higher education.
Despite reports that admissions have plunged at many of the former polytechnics (The Times, Friday January 24th), Westminster University is becoming increasingly popular. Over the past two years the applications to our University have increased by 27.8%—10% growth each year ahead of the national picture.
And with students from over 150 countries, applications from overseas students have increased by 57.5% since 2012, again well ahead of the national trend.
A few closing accolades: the University has entered the top twenty of the QS world rankings for its work in media and communications; architecture is ranked second in the UK by practitioners; biomedical scientists have won national and international awards for pioneering work in post-graduate training; and, finally, The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills website on 20th January 2014 announced that ‘A documentary film from an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project at the University of Westminster has been nominated for an Oscar’! They don’t come much better than that!
In addition to academic achievements, I will always remember the Regent Street Poly and the contemporary University as a very human place: friendly, welcoming, staff always accessible and warmly hospitable.
Mention of the word ‘hospitality’ reminds me of a definition of ‘hospitality’ once suggested by the late archbishop Lord Coggan:
'Hospitality is the Art of making someone FEEL at home when they wish they WERE at home’.
I have been blessed by the hospitality of the University over the years and I have been given great privilege of speaking in this great Abbey. I will stop before you all wish I were at home.