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Monday, 6 April 2015

Alumni Voices: Oral History and the History of Higher Education

Andrea Jacobs

University of Winchester 

 Was it a question mark or a hammer and sickle that the students of King Alfred’s College carved into the face of the nearby chalk down in the mid 1950s? Those interviewed for the Alumni Voices project at the University of Winchester were divided on this point. Oral histories of institutions are full of such inconsistencies and highlight the debates over the ‘truth’ of past memory. Increasingly, however, these ‘bottom up’ histories are being seen as enriching our understanding of the development of the ‘soul’ of a university identified by John Henry (Cardinal) Newman in 1852. The oral history interview adds an additional layer of understanding and allows multiple narratives to exist and individual voices, of both the powerful and the powerless, to have equal weight in the historical record.
The universities established in the 1960s, the so called ‘plate-glass’ universities because of their modern architectural design have now reached, or are approaching, their 50 year anniversaries and it is significant that rather than commission a traditional ‘house history’ to celebrate the event, many have chosen instead oral history projects which have been made accessible on their websites. 
The example of the earliest of these, the University of Sussex, founded in 1961, seeks to tell the individual stories behind the institution’s history and provide an account of people’s relationship with the University, (  At the University of York, founded in 1963, they anticipate that the memories captured by their project will inform their own history , the history of post-war universities and that of education in general, (
Similarly at the University of Warwick, founded in 1965, they hope that the interviews they have carried out reveal a great deal about the development of higher education and research in the UK, and in the history of student life and the social and cultural history of Britain after 1945 (  They have therefore not only included voices not usually heard in traditional histories but have recognised that the result resists the charge of being  merely ‘parochial’ in view of the insights into the history of higher education  more generally.

The University of Winchester is a much newer name, only achieving university status in 2005. However its foundation as a Diocesan Training College dates back to 1840 and it is therefore celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. Alumni Voices: The Changing Experience of Higher Education, written by Stephanie Spencer, Andrea Jacobs and Camilla Leach  is being published on 14th April as part of the celebration. 

Alumni Voices, while not originally intended to celebrate any specific event, uses data from an oral history project, carried out in three stages between 2004 and 2009. It focuses on the day-to-day experiences of those who studied and worked in one institution to explore a way of writing the history of higher education in the recent past and includes testimony from many perspectives across the power spectrum. 

The book reflects many of the changes in higher education within the United Kingdom as a whole over the last sixty years. It is also intended that  by reflecting on the history of people’s experience and in particular the way that the experience of being part of a higher education community has changed, the book might provide additional insight on the nature of higher education at the beginning of the 21st century.

While ‘alumni voices’ are at its core, alongside these, the book examines the methodological dilemmas facing those who write histories of higher education and more especially the exploration of the wider implications of the contribution of the individual voice. This exploration is carried out, as we have described elsewhere, (, utilising voice relational methodology (VRM) which derives from Carol Gilligan’s work.[1]
A critical period in the history of the institution, when in the 1970s, it was fighting for its survival is given particular prominence in the book as it was mentioned so many times by our respondents. In focusing on the way in which members of staff, from lecturers to administrators to the principal himself, recalled it, the book suggests that an oral history can indeed provide that understanding of the significance of relationship between the personal and political and the implications of that relationship for the direction in which an institution grows and changes. 

While our analysis using VRM, involves reading the transcript of interviews several times to capture the layers of meaning and restores some of the emotional responses which can be overlooked in a single reading of a printed page, nothing can replace listening to the interview itself:  two very short extracts from two separate interviews which discuss the period in question are therefore included here.
The book is available for a special launch price of £10 plus £4 p and p. For an order form at this price, please email

[1] Carol Gilligan, In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development (Cambridge Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 1982).