This article is more than 6 years old

Hull: a city and a university raising its head

In Hull, Louis Coiffait finds a university and a city raising its head.
This article is more than 6 years old

Some might argue that Hull is geographically, economically – and even culturally – a cul-de-sac.

The city is used to being talked down by others, and to talking itself down. It was cruelly labelled the country’s “crappest town” in a 2003 book. When I was growing up nearby the joke was: “Is it important? No, it’s in ‘ull!”. Even the University of Hull was mocked in Blackadder.

But, this once-proud port has a far richer history than most realise and is discovering new ways of engaging with the world, the rest of the country, and itself. With a well-earned reputation for friendliness, the year as UK City of Culture 2017 helped Hull to regain confidence and pride in telling its story. But, there is still much hard work to do, with challenges including austerity, Brexit, and climate change.

The University of Hull is actively involved in much of that work, with its vice chancellor telling me it’s an “internationally-engaged and place-based university”. However, it will need not only to renew itself and respond to the changes buffeting universities, but also increase its influence – to tell its own story regionally, nationally, and internationally. It also needs more metropolitan regulators and commentators (such as OfS and The Times) to show a nuanced understanding that Hull is rarely competing on a level playing field – whether it’s the social background of applicants or the future earning potential of graduates.

Welcome to ‘ull

But first, some introductions. Hull sits on a floodplain at the confluence of two rivers, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It’s a flat place of wide horizons, with 90% of the city below the high-tide mark, as evidenced by the 2007 flooding of 8,600 homes, and the similar close call of 2013. It’s bordered to the North by the Wolds and to the South by the mile-wide, muddy waters of the Humber.

The Humber bridge provides an iconic (if under-utilised) link south to Lincolnshire, and there are routes eastwards to Holland, Belgium, and beyond by ferry. However, the main transport arteries, by rail and road, run westwards towards the A1, Leeds, and yonder. The city is bisected by the far narrower, but just as brown, River Hull.

The ancient port of “Kingston upon Hull” (to use its proper title) was so-named by King Edward I, who acquired the former wool trading post from a local abbey in order to promote trade and security. However, it later sided with Parliament in the English Civil War, famously denying King Charles I entry, who then unsuccessfully besieged it twice, before going on to lose his head.

Work matters

Hull’s history is one of trading, whaling, fishing, and seafaring – connecting the UK to Europe and the wider world. It’s an industrial town, with big chemical, healthcare, food, and manufacturing industries, though more recently it is focusing on being a visitor destination and renewable energy hub, as well as fostering its creative and “digitull” industries. The city is unique in having its own independent municipal telephone system since 1902, featuring cream rather than red phone boxes.

Hull has often been battered and bruised by wider events, whether it’s whaling bans, the Cod wars with Iceland, or bombing in both World Wars. With 1,200 people killed, 95% of its houses damaged or destroyed, and almost half its population made homeless, Hull suffered second only to London in the Blitz – albeit with far less attention as its name was rarely given in news stories.

The recessions of the 1970s, 1980s – and post-2008 austerity – all hit the city harder than most. Pick a national socio-economic indicator and you’ll find Hull in the relegation zone for much of the past half century, though that is starting to change, with the economy and local authority performance improving. Average weekly earnings of £376 are the lowest in the country by some measures, with Hull the thirdmost deprived borough in the country. An average Hull house is worth £103,500, though that means living costs – including for students – are among the lowest in the country too.

Many of the c.100 schools in Hull have struggled against deprivation (one in three children), low aspirations, and underachievement. And although Hull’s schools are still below national averages overall, it is slowly fighting its way up the league tables on some measures, with cultural legacy plans afoot for future generations. The university supports the local Children’s University by hosting their offices on campus, providing access to facilities, as well as supplying funding and volunteers. Today, 30% of Hull residents have degree-level (L6) qualifications or above (vs 37% nationally).

Regenerating the “public realm”

Central Hull boasts Victorian splendour, beautifully laid-out parks, the Guildhall, a maritime museum, the Ferens Art Gallery, tree-lined avenues, and Trinity House – helping supply sailors for British ships since 1787. The city’s church was renovated and upgraded to minster status in 2017.

Hull’s Old Town is full of fine pubs, with modest claims such as “smallest window” and “smallest pub room” in the country, as well as exotic street names such as Land of Green Ginger and Sewer Lane.

The Deep, an impressive waterfront aquarium and marine research centre, was opened in 2002 within the regenerated marina neighbourhood. These days, many of the hipper – if not quite hipster – bars, restaurants and shops are to be found in The Avenues district, near the university. Last year the Sunday Times named Hull “one of the best places to live in the UK”.

Culture ‘ull

If you don’t know ‘ull’s dropped-aitch and vowel-heavy accent you’re in for a treat. You might hear local lasses Lucy Beaumont and Maureen Lipman on BBC Radio 4’s “To Hull and Back”, playing up to their roots with typical self-deprecating Hull humour, “drah waht wahns”, and “fern cerls”.

There’s a strong theatrical, literary, and entertainment heritage that runs through Hull and its university. Stars with strong Hull connections include John Godber, Alan Plater, Isy Suttie, Anthony Minghella, Jenni Murray, Mark “Chappers” Chapman, Liam Mower, James Graham, Gerald Thomas, Tom Courtenay, Andrews Marvell and Motion, Sean O’Brien, Stevie Smith, Malcolm Bradbury, Gavin Scott and of course, the most famous university librarian, Philip Larkin.

When I met the (fifth) incumbent librarian, Michelle Anderson, she was mindful of the legacy, but also of a civic university’s long-term responsibility to engage local people “beyond the high-end events of 2017”. She also talked about helping the university community adapt to a world of online learning and open publishing.  

Music made in Hull includes the Watersons, Mick Ronson, Throbbing Gristle, The Housemartins, The Beautiful South, Roland Gift, and Everything But the Girl. Its legendary Spiders nightclub and New Adelphi venue live on.

Hull’s also sport-mad, with Hull City (The Tigers) spending recent years in the Premiership, two rival rugby league teams, and a clutch of London 2012 olympic medal winners. Two miles from the city centre, the university has an impressive range of facilities on campus, many open to the public.

Even Banksy has graced the city with a recent mural, though it was promptly painted over by someone, carefully restored, then fenced off.

A similar thing happened to Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir, whose 400lb bronze sculpture was stolen in 2011 (probably for its £1,800 scrap value) and had to be replaced, at the cost of £45,000. As part of the 2017 celebrations the university hosted a public sculpture trail of ten pieces by the artist.

People of Hull (cod ‘eds)

Hull has a background of hard-won social progress, with aviator Amy Johnson’s numerous long-distance records, Clive Sullivan the first black national sports-team captain, and Lil Bilocca’s battle for safer working conditions on the 150 Hull trawlers that once brought in a quarter of the UK’s fishing catch. It’s most famous MP, William Wilberforce, fought against slavery, a fight continued today by the university’s award-winning Wilberforce Institute’s work on modern slavery, including in supermarket supply chains.

The city has a relatively white (97% vs 86% nationwide) population of over 260,000, with Chinese and Kurds the next biggest groups of people. Hate crimes in Humberside increased a staggering 62% in 2017 (compared to a national rise of “just” 29%). The city voted for Brexit by 67.6%. These may be the “citizens of somewhere” Theresa May infamously spoke of, or be “sick of experts” as prophesied by Michael Gove, but, since the decline of fishing and other industries, the people of Hull have needed to leverage support from elsewhere, as well as from its university.

Whether it’s from international firms such as Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy and Associated British Ports’ involvement in the £1bn Green Port Hull facility, the £32.8m UK City of Culture year (18.5% from corporates), or the mix of private and public investment behind the university’s new £28m health campus – the university continues to either be a key partner or to lead such initiatives. It also brings in funds from different trusts and foundations into the city. But, there’s an open question about what the industrial strategy, sector deals, catapult centres, and UKRI can deliver for the people of Hull. Like most other institutions, the university is already working with the Local Enterprise Partnership on a local industrial strategy.

Although local economic growth and employment are presently above national averages, how will Hull fare in a year’s time if the competition becomes even more keenly global? Can the university successfully navigate the cross-winds facing the higher education sector in order to support the city? And what will happen if sea levels rise?

The University of ‘ull

It was a sunny day as I cycled onto the self-contained city campus, with its attractive mix of old, new, and renovated buildings from the past ten decades. The vice chancellor described it as a “hidden gem” and I’m inclined to agree. A £200m investment in campus facilities is evident, with some construction still underway. One of the jewels is the seven-storey library, redeveloped in 2015 for £28m, nestled at the heart of the campus and of students’ learning experiences – with 24/7 access in-person and online.

The ground floor includes an art gallery, featuring busts by Jacob Epstein and an exhibition of Terence Cuneo’s paintings. I’d just missed a recent showcase with works by Monet, Picasso and Rembrandt.

After being a major venue throughout Hull UK City of Culture 2017, the university’s 2018 events programme looks varied and impressive. Next September, the university will host the British Science Festival, back in Hull after a 97 year gap.

But how can a bunch of supposedly insulated academics (in an insulated institution, from an insulated sector, within an insulated town) survive the current waves of global change, let alone what’s to come? And can they bridge the false dichotomy of “nowhere and somewhere”?

Raising the game

Pensions are on a long list of current challenges for the university, which was founded in 1927 (making it the 14th oldest in the country) and which received Royal Charter in 1954.

I’d done some homework, finding the university dead-centre in one Wonkhe chart on national measures of teaching and research. Was it successfully piloting a twin-track strategy, or stuck in the middle of nowhere with an identity crisis? I wondered what was unique about the university, and why it’s never been in a mission group?

It turns out Susan Lea, who became vice chancellor in August 2017 had already used our chart with the senior team. For her, it is very much a twin-track approach, of research and teaching. But, the trick is in how the institutional strategy goes about doing that, engaging staff in the process and “not having everybody doing everything”. Although in some league tables the university fell in recent years, there are strong foundations to build on, with a TEF silver award, and a recent 35% increase in competitively won research grants. I wondered how it can continue to build on its areas of research strength.

South African by birth, Lea is a professor of psychology, who has researched social justice, domestic and sexual violence. She’s also the first ever woman to lead the institution in nearly a century. To her, the post-18 review poses risks and opportunities, but she believes the university is well-placed as it is already plugged-in with local colleges and the regional skills strategy.

At a national level, Lea believes it’s important to get across positive narratives about universities in the public discourse, with universities taking responsibility for clearer communications about the value they deliver, to society and individuals.

Meeting other people at the university I was reminded again what the phrase “anchor institution” actually means. Senior university staff are part of a pioneering mentoring scheme with senior local police officers. Everyone I spoke to seemed highly active in a range of professional networks; local, national and international. Mark Lorch seems to be a one-man science communication machine.

Londoner Osaro Otobo, the Hull University Union President, described the wide range of student volunteering that takes place, with everything from drama and sport, to local schools and health education.

Hull and its university also have strong STEM roots, including chemist George Gray (LCDs), astrophysicist Edward Milne (relativity), and mathematician John Venn (diagrams). And of course higher education wonks will know Hull lad Ronald Dearing (reports).

By some measures the university has the most socially-mixed intake in the sector, with a fifth of its 2016 undergraduates from each of the five POLAR3 quintiles, making it a truly comprehensive university. It also has relatively high levels of employability, with over 96% of graduates employed or in further study within six months, according to the latest DLHE data. My immigrant father graduated as a mature student there in 1964, going on to teach French in the city for over thirty years.

I got a tour of another campus jewel, the new Allam Medical Building.

My two proud guides were Julie Jomeen the Dean of Faculty of Health Sciences, and Deborah Robinson the Head of School of Health and Social Work.

We walked through state-of-the-art medical facilities designed to train mixed teams of different medical professionals. Those facilities include a range of (rather disturbing) “high fidelity” simulation manikins, which can bleed, speak, give birth, or go into cardiac arrest at the touch of a button.

They showed me videos of the Queen opening the building, and talked of international contracts and matched private funding. Given the region has a shortage of medical professionals, this facility, as well as the joint Hull York Medical School, should help to meet that demand.

Of course, national funding decisions, such as about nursing bursaries, will influence what the university can do. International affairs will also have a role, whether it’s the university’s contracts to train nurses in China, or engineering educators in Saudi Arabia. I wondered how a university such as Hull could best influence such arenas.

Rising to the challenge of raised stakes

I left the university, heading back South to my adopted home feeling enlightened and heartened. I see three areas where the university is making a real difference, and not just to Hull.

Now the projections and parades of 2017 have passed, the university is evidently committed to maintaining the city’s cultural momentum. It’s also helping to learn the lessons from the year, sharing insights from long-term, ongoing evaluations with Coventry and others. When funding, careers, and public reputations are involved, sometimes you need honest, critical friends who can take a longer view.  

The risks of an American-style culture war, or a Brexit-induced recession, are more keenly felt in places like Hull than down here in the hot, fetid air of the Westminster bubble. But I saw people and an institution fighting hard against those scenarios. Whether it’s the community engagement, or the role as an economic catalyst, it’s clear the university is having a positive impact at many levels.

And perhaps most encouragingly, there is a strong environmental movement happening in Hull and its university. For example it’s positioning itself as the UK’s “energy estuary” through Aura’s work on offshore wind farms, it’s developing citizen science projects to help gather water pollution data, and its pioneering research is helping predict floods worldwide. Once the Brexit teacup-storm has long passed, and 2017’s culture wars have passed, this will be the issue really affecting Hull, as well as the rest of us.

6 responses to “Hull: a city and a university raising its head

  1. Have really enjoyed reading your article, Louis. I came to Hull at the age of 18 to study French and English Literature at Hull University and never left. I loved my time as a student (and was taught by some brilliant people) and, although I’ve always regarded Hull and the East Riding as a well-kept secret, I now rather like the fact that Hull is no longer hiding its light under a bushel, courtesy of the City of Culture year.

  2. Well done on telling the historical side of Hull too – it is a hidden gem with a very rich history. Just think what the difference would be if it were called Kingston and not Hull! (and yes, I’m a Hull graduate who went for 3 years and stayed 13!)

    By the way, it was referred to in WWII as “a North East Coast Town” so the British morale wasn’t lowered as a result of being bombed (from memory) 81 nights running. The city has taken a long time to recover from that.

  3. A great article on Hull. I spent 3 happy years studying Politics there and loved the University and the town. Often overlooked, but with much to be proud of!

  4. Hull University has a rather strange website these days. I tried to see who was working at one of the Departments and had to give up after five clicks. It is cloaked by a mar-coms wall, obscuring the identities of the intensely humane and wonderfully eclectic academics within. The corporate marketing contrasts with this wonke piece, which exudes warmth and charm. Hull is one of those places that grows on you enormously.

    Brexit is mentioned several times. Hull – notwithstanding City of Culture status – voted very strongly (68% – 32%) to leave, despite its maritime heritage, historical record as an entry point for immigration, and the Siemens investment. As mentioned in the article, it is a proud city but one with far below national average income/added value and on top of that significantly below national average public spending.

    Hull deserved the injection of morale City of Culture provided and it is to be hoped that its economy will enjoy a boost over the coming decade.

  5. I sometimes think of universities as being similar to football clubs, and using that analogy, Hull University would be in the Premier League. The article mentions that the city has a lot of long-standing issues and problems (chronic health issues, long term unemployment, teenage pregnancies, class A drug use, crime, low wages, etc) and probably a large percentage of the 350,000-400,000 people who live within the city boundaries and the contiguous suburbs have very little understanding or appreciation of what the University of Hull is or does, some locals who live literally a stone’s throw from the main campus just think that it’s full of ‘rich people’ and that it has little relevance to their own lives. My point is, Hull University is a very well respected institution, not only in the UK, but in virtually every part of the world, and local people might be surprised of just how highly thought of and well known the university really is. I mentioned before, if Hull University was a football club, or Rugby League or Rugby Union club, it would be in the top league of universities.

Leave a Reply