Branding higher education: what’s in a name?

Most of us inherit our names, as do the organisations we join. But we absorb them into our sense of who we are, and this is also true for institutions as well as individuals. So I have been following recent discussions at Leeds Metropolitan University – or Leeds Beckett University as it will be called in future – with interest.

It is quite rare for a university to rename itself. Those of us who were around in the early 1990s remember the shuffling of proposed titles when the former polytechnics became universities and had to negotiate new names. Existing universities often objected to proposed names that, they argued, might lead people to confuse two separate institutions. And there were many stories, probably apocryphal, about names that were later found unsuitable.

Leeds Polytechnic was one of several ex-polytechnics that ended up with the word ‘Metropolitan’ in its title. At the time, this was supposed to signal an allegiance to the city in which the university was based. Now it has decided that it has ‘outgrown’ this name, triggering a campaign (with the obligatory Facebook page) to keep the old name. According to one internal document, the senior managers were worried that the ‘overseas market’ might think that Leeds Met was part of a chain of Metropolitan universities.

The University’s Chancellor described the new name as ‘fusing our rich educational heritage with our dynamic modern approach’. I’m not quite clear about the ‘dynamic modern approach’, but the name certainly reflects the history of two of its predecessor institutions, teacher training colleges that were based on Beckett Park, which the University owns. The University acquired Beckett Park from Leeds City Council, who in turn bought it – as Kirkstall Grange – from Ernest Beckett, a hereditary peer and Conservative politician.

The family earned its title by suppressing the Luddite movement. Beckett, shoe-horned in as MP for the safe Tory seat of Whitby, inherited the title in 1905. He had an undistinguished career in Parliament, had dropped out of university without completing a degree, and his brothers kicked him out of the family banking firm. Ernest squandered his inherited wealth on gambling, women and art, before selling the Park (with two other homes) to pay off monumental debts.

So Ernest Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe, offers an intriguing example of a dissolute aristocrat with few redeeming features. But I can’t imagine anyone outside Yorkshire worrying too much about the old scoundrel. Whether his name will serve the University well, in a global higher education environment, remains to be seen.