UofG was named THE University of the Year 2020, but does the award really mean anything for prospective students?
At the end of 2020, the University of Glasgow was awarded the title of Times Higher Education’s University of the Year. The judges cited efforts by the University to uncover its historic links to slavery and work on reparative justice, hailing Glasgow as “thoroughly deserving” of the award. In a UK first, a report into the institution’s historic links with slavery was published in September 2018 after comprehensive research by historians Professor Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen.
Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli declared the award “an enormous honour” and went on to say that “talking about historical links to slavery can be a difficult conversation but we felt it was a necessary and right one for our university to have.” Liam Brady, President of the Students’ Representative Council, said the award was “tremendous recognition of the groundbreaking work of our students and staff on slavery and reparative justice.” These two leading figures of university life were clearly proud to receive the award - but does such a prize really matter to those of us who study here?
There will be those among us who believe that, as the award isn’t related to the University’s academic performance, such as entrance grades, or percentage of good honours degrees, then it is rendered somewhat worthless. Although the University of Glasgow was ranked second in Scotland this year, behind only the University of St Andrews, by The Sunday Times Good University Guide, this University, as good as it is, is not the best performing in the UK. It doesn’t have the academic excellence of the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge, or perhaps even the University of Edinburgh, but then that opens a separate debate about Glasgow versus Edinburgh that it would be unwise to become embroiled in here. (Although, the fact the University of Glasgow is considerably higher than the University of Edinburgh in The Sunday Times table, partly due to student experience, says a great deal about where prospective students may prefer to study...) Perhaps then, some sympathy should be afforded to the view that the award isn’t fully meaningful as it is not an indicator of academic excellence on the part of the University, but that view doesn’t paint the full picture.
A more complete view considers that the prize should be seen as a clear statement to students studying at the University of Glasgow: this is a University that will own its past, and will aim to be a socially responsible institution of higher education.
As a History 1A student, I was riveted by a seminar on Scotland and slavery in which the report by the University was discussed. The financial figures, and therefore evidence of connection to slavery, were higher than I had previously imagined. The report revealed that the University profited between £18m-£200m in the 18th and 19th centuries from trade related to enslaved peoples, namely tobacco and sugar.
What was even more impactful than these figures were the facts that the University has had the social conscience to investigate its past and to take responsibility for its wrongs. Such a philosophy should absolutely have an impact on those of us who study here or wish to study here. The University of Glasgow is an ancient and successful institution anyway, yet this award should make students who study here even more impressed and proud. It shows that the University is addressing its past and therefore shaping its present and future. What more could well adjusted students want than to know that where they’re studying isn’t just run by the bottom line on a balance sheet? That has a soul and a recognition of its own questionable history, which illustrates its willingness to be honest, open and truthful?
The prize, how it was won, and what it stands for, could very well sway a prospective student’s decision to choose Glasgow over somewhere comparable that doesn’t boast such an accolade. In the current global climate of engineered political division and racial aggravation, the award should send a message to the world. The University of Glasgow may not be perfect (academically or historically) but by commissioning this report and winning this award it has set an example to political leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson: some truths from the past may be uncomfortable, but with honest investigation and reflection not only can the future be shaped, but the world can be changed.