Executive Board

F.L. Attenborough Lecture: Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society

Celebrating the University of Leicester’s Centenary

21 February 2022

Good evening everyone. It is an honour and a privilege to stand before you today to deliver the F L Attenborough Lecture on Celebrating the University of Leicester’s Centenary. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so in person and to follow in the wake of the Honourable Michael Attenborough CBE, who delivered the inaugural lecture in this prestigious series.

Frederick Attenborough was my predecessor as head of the University College and his family has a long history associated with the Lit and Phil as well as the University. The University is where they lived and where the young Attenborough boys were raised. Sir David is a long-time supporter, and his late brother Richard was patron of our dedicated inclusive centre for disability and the arts. That role is now performed by his son, Michael, a Distinguished Honorary Fellow of the University – the highest award the University can make.

So in Celebrating the Centenary of the University of Leicester, which is the subject of my talk, we are in fact celebrating a special relationship. That between the Leicester Lit and Phil and the University. A celebration, in fact, of the extraordinary people who connect our organisations. 

Poet, abolitionist, and teacher Lucy Larcom once wrote that if you plant a tree, you plant hope.  

And it is said that in doing so,  you provide for humanity something from which you don’t hope to benefit yourself – the shade that tree provides will be for future generations. 

Over 100 years ago, members of this society planted a seed. It gave rise to Leicester’s first University, created as a symbol of hope in the wake of the devastation of the First World War. 

With the motto ‘That they may have life’ it took root in memory of those who had sacrificed for the war – the only living memorial in the country to be established by community fundraising. 

It was in fact a President of the Leicester Lit and Phil, Dr Astley Clarke, who opened the fund to create the University and made the first donation of £100, an equivalent of £5,500 in today’s money. 

And with the following words he made the almost prophetic vision that crystallised our purpose: 

Within two years of his donation, the fund for the University stood at more than £100,000 – equivalent to £5.5 million today. This money had been amassed from local donations, including from grieving relatives and supporters. Indeed, the names of nine young men lost in the war, whose friends and family made gifts, are recorded on a memorial plaque at the entrance to the Fielding Johnson Building. And, in a Golden Book that you can view online, there is a record of every founding gift that local families, societies and businesses made to establish the University. 

The dream of creating a University for Leicester turned into a reality following the donation by local businessman Thomas Fielding Johnson of the site that bears his name for the nascent University College.  In 1921, the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland University College opened its doors to its first 11 students.  

As I walk around the University today, the importance of how an idea can be planted, can take root and can have a transformational effect, is not lost on me.  It is, after all, what your forebears in the Lit and Phil did. 

I am reminded of an ancient Chinese proverb that states:  

“If you want 1 year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.”

It seems to me the Lit and Phil did just that – they provided the means to grow people. 

Not that the society did not also, quite literally, plant trees.  That fact is brought home to me and the countless visitors who sample the delights of the University Botanic Garden in Oadby which was also founded by the Leicester Lit and Phil.  In the tranquil beauty of the Garden, in its cycle of change, of growth, decay and replenishing, is a lesson for life and hope for the future. 

The giant redwoods that stand tall and proud in that garden symbolise for me the importance of growing deep roots within your locality, of withstanding the passage of time and for reaching for the skies.  

They are a physical symbol of what the Leicester Lit and Phil did for this city and county by seeding a University that now continues to grow and flourish, to strengthen its roots and to build for the future.  

To mark the Centenary of the University of Leicester, we are planting 100 trees – continuing a legacy of growth and hope for the future. 

That hope has been nourished over the past century by the input and guidance of many of the luminaries from the Leicester Lit and Phil.  

The list of leaders from the Lit and Phil who have been associated with the University reads like a roll call of the Society’s glitterati. They include of course Dr Astley Clarke who joined the Leicester Lit and Phil in 1901 and gave, according to the Society, “the most important and influential Presidential Address in the Society’s 175 year history,” in 1912. 

In it, he stated – and I am quoting from the society’s own records: “Do we – that is. Leicester – desire any position than the top?” He continued: “I look forward to the time when Leicester will not be content without some University College in its midst, where the various branches of knowledge will have a fitting home, and the Institution may be part of Leicester’s daily life.” 

He continued by pointing out that earlier in the year 25 Wyggeston Boys had passed the equivalent of Matriculation and therefore were eligible to proceed to University, but in the absence of anywhere local to attend many may not in fact proceed to higher education. Pointing out that his own academic and medical education had had to be in Cambridge and London, he expressed the hope that one day the proposed university would provide medical education for local medical students as well.” 

That hope and ambition too has come to pass as thousands of doctors and health professionals in our hospitals owe their medical education to the University of Leicester. 

Astley Clarke was the Vice-President of the fledgling College and the first Vice Chairman of its governing Council, while former Mayor Sir Jonathan North was the first Chair. In later years Fred Attenborough, the Principal of the University, was President of the Society throughout the Second World War. 

Others associated with the Lit and Phil and the University include former president Dr FW Bennett. He endowed a Professorship in Geology which is housed in a building that bears his name. Indeed a number of University buildings and rooms are named after your former presidents – Astley Clark, Percy Gee, Bennett, Gimson and Rattray. Members of the University staff have also served with the Lit and Phil – for example Professors Martin Stannard, Kent Woods, Alison Yarrington, John Fothergill, John Holloway, Trevor Ford, Peter Sylvester Bradley, Arthur and Jean Humphreys and many more. Professor Aftab Khan, another eminent member of the University and Society is a Life President. 

This is an appropriate juncture for me to pay tribute to an individual currently associated with the Lit and Phil and to whom the University is indebted.  

I am referring of course to your current President Dr Bridget Towle. It is a great honour and privilege for me to pay tribute to her for her tireless work and support to our University over a period of nineteen years. She served as Chair of the University Council and Pro Chancellor, and also served as Treasurer during her long and distinguished service with the University. She was the first woman to have held these posts since the foundation of University College, Leicester in 1921 and in every role she made a transformative impact upon the University. Thank you once again for your abiding influence on the University. 

I think it is clear that the histories of the society and that of the University are intertwined. This learned society has created an institution that has benefited the locality and beyond. The seed of an idea in this society over 140 years ago has germinated and created a great seat of learning that has transformed lives and continues to do so. 

I began with a reference to the Attenboroughs so it is appropriate to end the first section of my address with the words of that son of Leicester whose family has been associated with the University and the Society.  Sir David captured the impact of creating a university quite beautifully with the following words: [video recording]

I want to turn now to a more philosophical discourse, as befitting a learned society such as this, on the role and purpose of universities.

We are here to celebrate the centenary of the University of Leicester, but the history of universities date centuries earlier.

It was Socrates who surmised that ‘Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel’ – which to me is a pretty succinct way to describe the purpose and function of a university education. He said ‘Wisdom begins in wonder’ and for me it is the acquisition of knowledge that helps bring about transformative change in an individual and in society.

Socrates also did say: ‘My advice to you is to get married: if you find a good wife – for which you can read partner – you will be happy; if not, you’ll become a philosopher!” Now that, perhaps, is a topic for a future discussion!

The term University itself has Latin origins in ‘universitas magistrorum et scholrium’, which denotes a ‘community of teachers and scholars’.  People came together to acquire knowledge, a quest for truth that pushed forward the frontiers of learning.

So in ninth century Morocco, an Arab woman is said to have founded the world’s first higher education establishment while Al-Azhar University in Cairo dates to 972 AD. In Europe, the first University was in Bologna, in modern day Italy, founded in 1088.

These academic establishments followed earlier institutions of higher learning – for example the Platonic Academy of Greece founded in 387 BC; in the Indian subcontinent Pushpagiri, Taxilia and Nalanda were ancient centres of higher education and in China an imperial academy to train bureaucrats had developed by the first century. Indeed, higher schools were established in China some 2000 years BC. In Persia, a medical and HE academy existed from the third century.

So the pursuit of knowledge, and the acquisition of skills in a dedicated environment for learning has existed since ancient times.

In Europe, it was Pope Gregory VII who decreed in 1079 that the Church would build cathedral schools for the education of future members of the clergy. It was their success that led to the development of universities that offered disciplines beyond religious training.

The link between religion and Universities, whether in Christian Europe, Buddhist South Asia, or Islamic North Africa, is interesting because both institutions engaged themselves with a search for truth. This was seen as an ideal for a cultivated society and therefore inseparable from moral and religious education.

As Aristotle put it: ”educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

In the 1850s, the series of lectures delivered by John Henry Newman, entitled The Idea of a University, is now widely cited by educators to guide their mission. A theologian, poet and scholar who was an Anglican priest and who later became a Catholic priest and a cardinal, he had also been a college tutor at Oxford. 

His argument for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has elements that are useful even for those who believe in knowledge for the sake of life. He articulated the ‘search for truth’ amidst places of universal knowledge where the pursuit of a liberal education was key. Even as someone trained in engineering, I find it useful to draw from Newman’s thinking. Universities were for a community of thinkers, people engaged in intellectual pursuits and not driven by any external purpose or for a vocation.

Universities prepared students, as he put it, "to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyse". They existed primarily for pedagogical advancement and for preparing people to plunge into the world.

Newman’s use of the expression ‘The Idea of the University’ in the title of his lecture series was not actually his own, but had been coined in Europe during what is seen as ‘ a seminal period of modern university history’ under the reforms of Wilhelm von Humboldt in Prussia. It is here that the union of research and teaching was exemplified and provided a model for the development of universities as we know them.  This model sought to advance knowledge by original and critical investigation allied with teaching which would focus on the search for truth.

This model prevails to this day as universities seek to advance the frontiers of knowledge through original research and provide benefits for society. In this model, the search for truth is still the basis of teaching and linked to research by the advancement of knowledge.

In modern universities, the focus on research and teaching is key, but a third dimension now has an important focus – that of societal benefit. Ensuring that our community of scholars is empowered to benefit from a higher education is key. Our Chancellor David Willetts summarised it perfectly when, as universities and science minister, he spoke “about the crucial role of universities in our economy”. And he went on to comment: “And their contribution extends far beyond economic growth. Universities transform lives for the better, especially of young people. They are a force for good. They help people appreciate what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said in the world”. For many young people, going to university is their route to adulthood and a different, better life. One of the great privileges of my job is visiting universities - those notice boards with posters for visiting lecturers, sports competitions, new bands or chamber concerts are a kind of vision of the ideal community.”

Our early founders in the Lit and Phil, as I have said, were visionaries, creating a university to honour the past and build for the future. In discussions for establishing the University, reported in the Leicester Mail, the then Mayor Walter Lovell said: 

“opportunities should be given to the children of the poor as well as children of the rich – that clever brains no matter where they emanated should be given every opportunity for culture.”

And as an illustration of how social class was not a barrier, one of our pioneering founding students was Nellie Bonsor. By the time she was interviewed for a place at the University College, her father had died and her widowed mother earned a living as a laundress. She went on to become the first President of the Students’ Union.

We recognise that socio-economic factors contribute to inequality and have a strong track record in widening participation – for a research-intensive university we have a high proportion of students from low income families. Leicester recruits a higher percentage of students from low participation neighbourhoods than all but one any of the Russell Group universities. We are proud to be the only University in the country with a unit specifically to support Sanctuary Seekers. It is a testament to our commitment to support sanctuary seekers as well as to benefit from the values, experience and skills that they bring to us. 

The University from its very origins to this day is committed to social inclusion and this priority is very much part of the political and ideological framework that drives the function of universities. From the very start, Universities like Leicester sought to address the pressing needs of the time – and it seems that to this day, that is still the case.

So policy priorities such as levelling up, of civic responsibility and demonstrating economic impact, of removing inequalities in education and creating tangible benefits for society are all important, and they are some of the other drivers that determine the function of universities in modern times.

The value and purpose of universities has also been brought into sharp focus with talk of Woke universities, culture wars and low quality courses. There is concern about student outcomes and whether universities deliver value for money. Funding of universities is a matter of continuing political change and flux, and tuition fees remain a contested political issue, which makes the environment in which universities operate very uncertain indeed.

In these circumstances, universities should still remain committed to advancing their missions while meeting government and society’s expectations about breaking down barriers to access, improving participation, retention and attainment.

And we have to counter the narrative that pits the value of one subject against another.  That somehow arts and humanities are not as important or valuable as science or medical degrees. Nothing could be further from the truth. All disciplines are engaged in the advancement of knowledge. Arts and humanities enrich our society and I do not accept the narrative that one subject is more important than another. That is a totally false dichotomy. I believe society must learn to value all disciplines.

So universities have moved on from the Newman ideal of a community of thinkers to being more than that - universities are now anchor institutions and economic powerhouses that impact, through their research and teaching, the very future of society.

If Universities have changed, so has the landscape in which they operate. The University College when it was founded had 11 students and two members of staff. Now, Leicester has grown into a diverse and inclusive community of 18,000 students, 3,500 staff and 200,000 alumni from across the world.

Not only has the function of universities changed, so has the form. The necessity of going to university – of converging in a physical place – has been supplanted by different modes of education, often described as hybrid.

You have distance learning where students in far flung corners of the earth can benefit from a Leicester degree while students today, in the pandemic, have benefited from flexible learning mixing in-situ lessons with remote learning.

Universities operate in an increasingly competitive market place and therefore constantly have to review their operations, be adaptable in order to remain sustainable and viable. They have to be agile in order to respond to emerging challenges, locally, nationally and internationally.

What those challenges will be 100 years from now – who can say? The world has changed before our very eyes and our forebears who planted the seed for the University over a century ago could never have imagined the pace of change.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: “There is nothing permanent except change.” It is a truism to which we have all borne witness. We cannot even fathom what the University of 2122 or 2222 will look like and how education will be delivered. 

Despite change, there is one fact that has not changed. Universities like Leicester have remained true to their origins in the pursuit of knowledge. That search for truth is at the core of our mission. It is an eternal verity that drives us forward as we see to advance beyond the frontiers of what is known.

Research and discovery define us. We remain at heart the hunters and seekers of the truth.

In the final part of my speech, I want to focus upon how you prepare for the future, despite it being unknown, unpredictable and challenging in so many respects. If change is the only certainty, how do you adapt to it in order not only to survive, but to flourish?

I think it would be helpful at this stage to provide you with some insights into my life, background and values – because it is this that informs my strategy for the future of the University in order to set it on its path for the next century.

I was a child who lived through conflict – civil war tore my former homeland of Sri Lanka apart. Amidst strife, education was my salvation. Both my parents were teachers of modest means but my siblings and I were enriched by learning.

My life changed when I won a scholarship to Cambridge and from where I gained my undergraduate degree and doctorate. The journey from strife to studies, from conflict to cloisters was more than a physical one – it transported me to a different world of opportunity.  Education quite literally changed my life.

It is a lesson that is not lost on me. As educators, we are in a privileged position to open the door to opportunities for generations of students. It is a marvellous feeling. To empower one with education is to open a new realm of possibility for them. I am humbled every day by that knowledge.

So my life’s experience has taught me to cherish education and to harness its transformative power for the benefit of individuals and for society. But there is more:

  • I learnt the value of philanthropy. How the invisible hand that funded my scholarship had changed my life, and empowered me to change that of others
  • I experienced that the support of others was key to progression, and that it is through co-operation and key partnerships that new milestones can be achieved
  • and I witnessed the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion. Of ensuring fair access for talent and opportunity for the brightest minds who wished to progress

It strikes me that all of this, surprisingly, is not dissimilar to the purpose of the very institution that I lead – it too is committed to providing opportunity through education, it too was born out of philanthropy in the wake of war and it too is changing people’s lives.

So it is something more than serendipity that brings me here today, standing before you as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, to mark this milestone occasion for the University. What then of the next 100 years? 

The course of history has taught us that universities play a vital role in responding to economic and social challenges and to Government priorities. While early universities brought together communities of thinkers engaged in intellectual discussion, modern universities tackle head on the pressing issues of the day. They create Citizens of Change- individuals empowered through education to impact upon society.

And through research, universities make breakthroughs that can reshape history and alter destinies. At Leicester, discoveries like DNA fingerprinting, the finding of the mortal remains of King Richard III, advances in space research all have had a transformative impact on our understanding of the world.

This has also been borne out, for example, by the vital roles universities have played in the pandemic in areas such as developing the vaccines, testing them in partnership with the hospitals and supporting the NHS.

Universities are increasingly addressing issues such as climate change, criminal justice, the role and impact of social media and understanding the forces that shape our notions of society, identity and freedom. Through a suite of arts and heritage activities and studies, our universities enrich the social fabric of our lives. Increasingly, we tackle pressing health problems using our research expertise to advance understanding of many diseases.

In economic terms, the University of Leicester contributes £360m annually to Leicester and Leicestershire, and supports every 1 in 23 jobs in the city. We contribute to produce the workforce to meet the national need. We have trained 3,000 doctors and over 4000 teachers in the past 15 years and our widening participation activities engage with 26,000 children per year 

But, increasingly, universities are not able to do this on their own.  Universities cannot do everything – they need to prioritise and focus on their strengths. They must champion and lead in particular areas while working in partnership with others.

This presents a challenge – how do you find the right national and international partners? How do you create a global university that retains core expertise locally but also has links nationally and internationally to create critical mass to address the challenges society faces? 

In order to face the future, we have to create a sustainable model for universities to be good at what they do and to make effective alliances to advance their missions.

As Betrand Russell put it: The only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation. 

In November last year, I announced a strategy that will shape this University over the first decade of its second century.

Our Mission is expressed as follows:

Diverse in our make-up and united in our ambition, we change lives through education and research.

Our Vision – the statement of where we are going – is:

We will provide inspiring education and research, working in partnership with our communities, to become a truly inclusive university.

And we will be guided by the following Values: 

The three I’s as it were – speak to who we are. They are the three words; inclusive, inspiring, impactful, I would like to use to describe Leicester now and for the future.

Our three strategic themes are:

  • Research inspired education
  • World changing research
  • Our Citizens – and it focuses on people, partnerships and impact

We will remain a comprehensive research university, delivering a broad range of opportunities for the locality and beyond. 

Being an ally with the city, and counties of Leicestershire and Rutland, acting as an anchor institution is key to our mission. As I described earlier, over the past 100 years, the University has had an enormous impact, and this will continue in the next 100.

So we have come full circle. The University born out of the people of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland will serve its locality and partner with key organisations in order to bring about change and create benefits over the next 100 years.

We are no longer, and should never be the University on the hill. An intellectual bubble disassociated with its environs. Quite the contrary- we are a key partner and ally. The University for Leicester and not simply of Leicester.

Which is where you come in, the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society. That is where our story began in the 1880s. Your forbears played a pivotal role in creating the University and throughout that period, Lit and Phil members have been influential in the life of the University.

I would love that to continue for the next 100 years. For the Society to shape our thinking in an uncertain future. To continue and strengthen the relationship that was so pivotal in our foundation.

I leave you with the following words from Abdul Kalam, former President of India and a renowned scientist:

Ultimately, education in its real sense is the pursuit of truth. It is an endless journey through knowledge and enlightenment.

Thank you.

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