Our agent at Birmingham University tipped me off about a free public lecture by Dr. Elaine Fulton for the Cadbury Research Library. Knowing my fondness for and familiarity with The Anatomy of Melancholy the agent thought I may be interested in The Nuremberg Chronicle; indeed I was. I went and I learned some stuff, another piece in the vast jigsaw of everything that will never be completed. Anyway that’s not the point, the point is – what an amazing treat it was to be able to go and listen to a clever person at a university talk about something interesting but obscure for 45 minutes and this reminded me how much I love universities, which is a lot.
Musing on this some more, while ambling around the glorious Birmingham University campus, I came to recognise that one of the reasons I currently find universities so comforting is they seem to be the only institutions in the country that are thriving. The lecture was in the shiny new Bramall Music Hall, yards from the university’s brand new library and the 50m swimming pool, sports and fitness centre which will be opening very soon. In the city centre Birmingham City University is also building like crazy. At a time when the entire public sector is in the grip of punishing financial hardship universities appear to be awash with more money that they can reasonably be expected to spend. What’s going on?
If you talk to lecturers the suggestion isn’t that they’re in the lap of luxury, they claim money is being spent on buildings rather than people. Are universities paying cash for all this building work with receipts from student tuition fees? We’re told that tuition fees are there to prevent the roof from falling in rather than the buildings going up. So are these universities taking out the equivalent or mortgages? Are we witnessing a fear driven form of arms race in which universities seeking to attract students via ever more impressive facilities? Alternatively are these erections the manifestation of vice chancellor’s competitive egos? Or are they are all just super-eager to give their students and staff the best facilities possible in which to learn? Are we witnessing a university bubble akin to the housing bubble and if so will it burst and if so when and what does it look like when a university goes bankrupt? Can we buy expect to buy a particle accelerator cheap at Biddle and Webb? I hope not, I love universities and enjoyed today’s opportunity to learn about The Nuremberg Chronicle.