Red brick university

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Red brick university (or redbrick university) is an informal term used to refer to six civic universities founded in the major industrial cities of England.[1] All of the six existing red brick institutions, or their predecessor institutes, gained university status before World War I and were initially established as civic science or engineering colleges.[2][3][4][5][6][7]

Whilst the term was originally coined as these institutions were new and thus regarded by the ancient universities as arriviste,[8] the description has since ceased to be derogatory with the 1960s proliferation of universities and the reclassification of polytechnics in 1992. The six institutions are members of the Russell Group (which receives two-thirds of all research grant funding in the United Kingdom).[9]

Origins of the term[edit]

The term "red brick" or "redbrick" was first coined by Edgar Allison Peers, a professor of Spanish at the University of Liverpool, to describe the civic universities (under the pseudonym "Bruce Truscot" in his 1943 book Redbrick University).[8][10] His reference was inspired by the fact that The Victoria Building at the University of Liverpool (designed by Alfred Waterhouse and completed in 1892 as the main building for University College, Liverpool) is built from a distinctive red pressed brick, with terracotta decorative dressings.[11] On this basis the University of Liverpool is considered to be the original "redbrick" institution, although the term later became a cipher for all the civic universities of the day.[10][12][13]

The civic university movement[edit]

Name University Charter Awarded Predecessor institutions Notes
Victoria University 1880
(defunct 1903)
Owens College, Manchester (1851)
Leeds School of Medicine (1831)
University College Liverpool (1881)
Victoria University was a federal college based in Manchester with satellite sites in Leeds and Liverpool.
It was defunct by 1903 as Leeds and Liverpool sought independent university status which led to the formation of the new Victoria University of Manchester.
University of Birmingham 1900 Birmingham Medical School (1825)
Mason Science College (1875)
The first independent civic university to be awarded full university status by Royal Charter.
University of Liverpool 1903 University College, Liverpool (1881)
University of Manchester 1903 (as Victoria University of Manchester)
2004 (as University of Manchester)
Mechanics' Institute, Manchester (1824)
Owens College, Manchester (1851)
Victoria University of Manchester (1903)
UMIST (1956)
The federal Victoria University existed between 1880-1903. Victoria University of Manchester gained royal charter as a new entity in 1903. UMIST formed in 1956 and merged with the Victoria University of Manchester in 2004 to form the current University of Manchester.
University of Leeds 1904 Leeds School of Medicine (1831)
University of Sheffield 1905 University College of Sheffield (1897)
University of Bristol 1909 University College Bristol (1876)

The English civic university movement developed out of various 19th century private research and education institutes in industrial cities. The 1824 Manchester Mechanics' Institute formed the basis of the Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), and thus led towards the University of Manchester proper.[6] The University of Birmingham has origins dating back to the 1825 Birmingham Medical School.[2] The University of Leeds also owes its foundations to a medical school: the 1831 Leeds School of Medicine. The University of Bristol began with the 1876 University College, Bristol,[3] the University of Liverpool with a University College in 1881,[5] and the University of Sheffield with a university college in 1897.[7]

These universities were distinguished by being non-collegiate institutions that admitted men without reference to religion or background and concentrated on imparting to their students "real-world" skills, often linked to engineering. In this sense they owed their structural heritage to the Humboldt University of Berlin, which emphasised practical knowledge over the academic sort.[14] This focus on the practical also distinguished the red brick universities from the ancient English universities of Oxford and Cambridge and from the newer (although still pre-Victorian) University of Durham, collegiate institutions which concentrated on divinity, the liberal arts and imposed religious tests (e.g. assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles) on staff and students. Scotland's ancient universities (St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh), usually grouped with Dundee, were founded on a different basis.[citation needed]

Other institutions[edit]

While the University of Liverpool is generally considered to be the original "red brick" university, the University of Birmingham was the first of the civic universities to gain independent university status in 1900 and the University has stated that the popularity of the term "red brick" owes to its own Chancellor's Court, constructed from Accrington red brick.[15][16] The University of Birmingham grew from the Mason Science College (opened two years before University College Liverpool in 1880), an elaborate red brick and terracotta building in central Birmingham which was demolished in 1962.[17]

Indeed, many institutions share similar characteristics to the original six civic universities. The University of Reading, founded in the late 19th century as an extension college of Oxford University, was the only university to receive its charter between the two world wars and describes itself as a "red brick" university.[18][19] Queen's University Belfast,[citation needed] which became a civic university in 1908, also lays claim to the title having previously been established in 1845 as a college of the Queen's University of Ireland (later Royal University of Ireland). Many of the original constituent institutions of the University of Wales bear the Red Brick hallmarks: Aberystwyth; Bangor; Swansea; Cardiff. Certain constituent colleges of the University of London, such as Royal Holloway, Queen Mary and Goldsmiths College are also literally Victorian red brick in style.

Various other civic institutions with origins dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries have been described as Red Brick: University of Dundee (originally an independent university college, before becoming a constituent college of the University of St Andrews), University of Exeter and University of Hull, (both originally extension colleges of the University of London), University of Leicester, Newcastle University (originally two extension colleges of the University of Durham), University of Nottingham, and University of Southampton.

In 1963, the Robbins Report recommended expansion of the British university system. The universities established after this report are often known as the 'Plate Glass' universities.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ A history of the HE environment | Staff | University of St Andrews
  2. ^ a b "Birmingham University Firsts". Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  3. ^ a b "About the University of Bristol". Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  4. ^ "Origins of the University of Leeds". Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  5. ^ a b "About the University of Liverpool". Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  6. ^ a b "University of Manchester: History". Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  7. ^ a b "About the University of Sheffield". Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  8. ^ a b Peers, Edgar Allison (1943). Redbrick University. 
  9. ^ Russell Group: Home
  10. ^ a b Mackenzie & Allan (1996). Redbrick University Revisited. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 0-85323-259-8. 
  11. ^ Feingold, Mordechai (2006). History of Universities, Vol. XXI/1. Oxford University Press. 
  12. ^ "University of Liverpool". Russell Group website. Retrieved 2013-07-19. 
  13. ^ "University of Liverpool guide". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-07-19. 
  14. ^ "Humboldt University Structural Model and History". Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  15. ^ "University of Birmingham Professorial Announcement". Retrieved 2013-06-20. 
  16. ^ "Complete University Guide, University of Birmingham". Retrieved 2013-06-20. 
  17. ^ In Churchill's Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain. Retrieved 2013-07-11. 
  18. ^ "The University's History". University of Reading. Retrieved 2009-04-30. 
  19. ^ "Facts and figures about the university". University of Reading. Retrieved 2013-07-19.