Keele University History

Keele University logoKeele University History


As early as the 19th century, Charles Kelsall (1782-1857), an architect educated at Eton and Cambridge University, imagined in Phantasm of an University (1814), the foundation of a dream college layout in the county of Staffordshire where the “Silver Trent” would “meander at the end of the University grove”. Cambridge and Oxford Extension Lectures had been arranged in the Potteries since the 1890s, but outside any organised educational framework or establishment. In 1904, funds were raised by local industrialists to support teaching by the creation of a North Staffordshire College, but the project, without the backing of Staffordshire County Council, was abandoned.

By the late 1930s the Staffordshire towns of Longton, Fenton, Burslem, Hanley had grown into the largest conurbation without some form of university provision. A large area including Staffordshire, Shropshire and parts of Cheshire and Derbyshire did not have its own university. Stoke, in particular, demanded highly qualified graduates for the regional pottery and mining industries and also additional social workers, teachers and administrators with an academically informed grasp of local communities economic and social needs. Neither the traditional ancient institutions based on the Oxbridge model or earlier civic ‘Redbricks’ responded to that particular criteria. A. D. Lindsay, Professor of Philosophy and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, was a strong advocate of working-class adult education, and had first suggested a “people’s university” in an address to the North Staffordshire Workers’ Educational Association in 1925.

Curricular philosophy

Recently appointed to the House of Lords, Lindsay participated in producing the influential Foreign Office report University Reform in Germany, which argued that no institution deserved the name of “university” unless it combined teaching and research. Consistent with his democratic ideals of education, Lindsay also warned of the dangers of training the specialist intellect in the natural sciences and the need to introduce elements of social sciences at university level by broadening the academic agenda. Lindsay believed technological excesses sponsored by the state without a review of the social and political consequences had been a major contributor to Germany’s downfall. This was to heavily influence Keele’s curriculum.[15]

Keele University Clock House
Keele University Clock House

On 13 March 1946, Lindsay wrote to Sir Walter Moberly, chair of the University Grants Committee (UGC), suggesting the creation of a college “on new lines”. The committee wanted a university for the 20th century that could overcome the division between arts and sciences, and what Moberly was calling the “evil of departmentalism”. The UGC argued that “The tasks of the modern citizen and the study of modern society should be central to the curriculum.” North Staffordshire was seen as an ideal site since it “presented many typical problems thrown up by modern industrial conglomerations, such as those posed by technical innovation in the pottery and mining industries.” The college could become a “social laboratory” for industries and the local communities they catered for.

Normal practice was for new colleges (such as Southampton, Exeter and Nottingham) to be launched without degree-awarding powers. Students would instead matriculate with and take external degrees from the University of London. Crucially, Lindsay wanted to “get rid of the London external degree” and instead found a college with degree-awarding authority, as well as the power to set its own syllabus, perhaps acting under the sponsorship of an established university. This would allow the college to start afresh in the setting of its curriculum, free from the inheritance of educational practices. Lindsay also wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, tentatively requesting such sponsorship.

An exploratory committee was established by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and, having secured public funding from the UGC in January 1948, the Committee acquired Keele Hall, a stately home on the outskirts of Newcastle-under-Lyme, from its owner, Ralph Sneyd. The Hall, ancestral residence of the Sneyd family with its clock house, had been requisitioned by the War Office for military use during the Second World War, and was purchased together with the bulk of the Sneyd estate and a number of prefabricated structures erected by the Army, for the sum of £31,000.

In August 1949 the University College was granted the right to award its own degrees. The first graduate was George Eason, who had studied mathematics at Birmingham University and gained a BSc in 1951. He received his MSc in 1952 from Keele. In 1954 the first graduate studying fully at Keele was Margaret Boulds, who received a dual honours degree in philosophy and English.

Receiving university status

Keele Drive

Growing steadily to 1,200 students, the university college was granted university status in 1962, receiving a new royal charter in January that year, and adopting the name “University of Keele”. Alternatives were considered, including “The University of Stoke” or “Stoke-on-Trent”, but both were rejected because the estate is situated in the borough of Newcastle under-Lyme. “Staffordshire University” was also discussed (this is now the name of the former North Staffordshire Polytechnic).

The university is a short distance west of the civil parish of Keele, and it was decided to name it after the village. It is the only establishment of higher education in the UK to be named after a village, and this has long attracted questions as to its location. Together with Reading, Nottingham, Southampton, Hull, Exeter and Leicester, all university colleges founded a short time before or after the First World War, Keele is identified as one of the civic or Red Brick universities, albeit a very late one.

In 1968 the Royal Commission on Medical Education (1965–68) issued the Todd Report, which examined the possibility of a medical school being established at Keele. It was considered that North Staffordshire would be a good site, having a large local population and several hospitals. However, a minimum intake of 150 students each year would be necessary to make a medical school economically and educationally viable, and the university was at that time too small to support a medical school of this size.

Keele’s International Relations Department was founded in 1974 by Professor Alan James and was one of the first institutions to offer a full degree in the subject. The Keele World Affairs Group, closely associated, followed suit in 1980 and is Europe’s leading lecture series on Politics, Economics and Global Issues. Keele’s first woman professor was appointed to the Chair of Social Work in 1976. In 1978, Keele Department of Postgraduate Medicine was created, albeit not catering for undergraduate medical students.

Government funding cuts

Keele University Western Entrance

In late 1985, after a series of cuts in university funding, Keele briefly considered merging with North Staffordshire Polytechnic, but negotiations collapsed. In September 1983, the Secretary of State, via the UGC, had encouraged the idea, asserting that the most radical way of increasing the size of departments and diminishing their number is by the merger of institutions. At the time, Keele had a population of 2,700 students, compared to 6,000 at the less academically exclusive Polytechnic. Edwina Currie, then Conservative MP for South Derbyshire, remarked, “A university which is now below 3,000 students has got problems. It simply isn’t big enough”. Keele University Science & Business Park Ltd (KUSP Ltd) opened in 1986, partly to generate and diversify alternative sources of income.

In 1994, the Oswestry and North Staffordshire School of Physiotherapy (ONSSP), which had been a separate institution based at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry, Shropshire, merged with Keele University, becoming Keele’s Department of Physiotherapy Studies (now School of Health & Rehabilitation): it moved to the Keele University campus. In August 1995, Keele University merged with North Staffordshire College of Nursing and Midwifery, forming the new School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Path from Lymes Road to Keele Campus

In 1998 and 1999 there was some controversy when the university decided to sell the Turner Collection, a valuable collection of printed mathematical books, including some which had belonged to and had been heavily annotated by Isaac Newton, in order to fund major improvements to the university library. Senior university officials authorised the sale of the collection to a private buyer, with no guarantee that it would remain intact or within the UK. Although the sale was legal, it was unpopular among the academic community, and the controversy was fuelled by prolonged negative press coverage suggesting that the £1m sale price was too low and that the collection was certain to be broken up.

New schools of medicine, pharmacy, nursing & midwifery

The appointment of Sir David Weatherall as Chancellor paved the way for a rapid expansion in Health disciplines. In 2001, Keele was awarded an undergraduate medical school in partnership with Manchester University. Initially, some students from Manchester Medical School began being taught at Keele. Finally Keele’s own medical school opened in 2007 with the first of cohort of students having graduated in 2012. In 2009, the university was awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education, for “pioneering work with the NHS in early intervention and primary care in the treatment of chronic pain and arthritis, linking research to delivery to patients through GP networks and user groups”. In 2006 the School of Pharmacy was created with the launch of new MPharm degree programmes.

In early 2001, to cut costs, the faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences merged. Due to declining popularity and funding, the German department closed in December 2004 with the university retaining its physics degree despite the subject facing similar pressures. Although, degrees ceased to be offered in modern languages, a Language Learning Unit was created to provide Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Russian and Spanish teaching for Keele students and staff alike. This can lead to an enhanced degree title given sufficient electives taken.

The foundation year was eliminated in 1998 but re-introduced in 2012 with new programmes of study, the international foundation year and the accelerated international foundation year which add to the existing offer, as well as the humanities, science, social science, health, general foundation years and foundation year for people who are visually impaired.

Environmental goals

Starting in 2012, Keele has placed environmental sustainability at the heart of its university strategy. In 2016, Keele was finalist in the Green Gowns Awards thanks to its “significant reduction in carbon emissions and to a dedicated programme of carbon reduction projects supported by an excellent energy management system”. Moreover, in the People & Planet Green League 2015 assessments for environmental and ethical performance, Keele ranked 48 of 151 educational establishments. The creation of a SMART energy centre due for completion in 2021 aims to further improve this by allowing the campus to become energy self-sufficient via waste recycling and alternative energy sources.

Business School expansion

In 2017, Keele School of Management (KMS), currently housed in the Darwin building, decided to expand its offering at undergraduate level with new Single honors programmes. The new science park Mercia Centre for Innovation and Leadership (MCIL) initiative, due for completion in 2019, will, moreover, serve as a relocation for the school. KMS also elected to work more closely with regional business actors e.g Michelin Tyre PLC in Stoke-on-Trent by offering first year students the opportunity to work on live projects.