A Brief History of the University Extension Society Movement and Southport University Extension Society

The idea that universities should reach out to the wider community can be traced back to the 19th century. An awareness of the unacceptability of wide social differences, and of material and cultural poverty, was shown by social idealists such as Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris. They believed that it was not enough to regard the miseries of the poor as just the natural order of things but something that could be tackled by practical action rather than revolutionary theory.

From the very beginning, the university in the city of Liverpool, pioneered the establishment and expansion of adult education. In line with William Roscoe’s motto with which he had opened the Royal Institution in 1817, the university promoted lifelong learning and made a significant contribution to the University Extension movement that aimed to provide educational opportunities to those who had been previously deprived. Indeed, the idea for University Extension lectures originated in Liverpool in the latter half of the 19th century. One of its residents, Anne Clough, brought together a group of women from the North of England to form an association that would promote Higher Education for women.

Among those approached to deliver public lectures was the Scottish-scientist James Stuart, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and often cited as the founder of the University Extension movement. Stuart came to Liverpool in the autumn of 1867 and delivered lectures on the History of Science as he did at the Royal Institution that would later become a key teaching centre for adult education in the early 20th century. Inspired by his experience in the northern port-city, Stuart returned to Cambridge with a proposal to inaugurate University Extension lectures and, thus, the new scheme was launched in 1873 at Cambridge, followed by London and Oxford.

It was in Oxford, in 1883, that a group of interested people met to discuss ways university men could contribute more to poorer sections of society resulting in Toynbee Hall being set up in the East End in 1884 (Toynbee was a tutor at Balliol). This was a residence or ‘settlement’ for university men, who would engage in activities (clubs, classes etc.) with local people. The idea spread to other cities and by 1900 there were 33 in existence. In addition universities sought ways to provide education for those who were not full-time students.

The notion of a University Extension Society was a feature of this movement. Again, the principle was that universities should reach out into society instead of simply expecting people to come to them. In the course of time, however, these societies became more a vehicle for those who wanted to continue to learn in later life, often people with some background in higher education who wanted to maintain intellectual interests.

The University of Liverpool, then, has a long-standing history of continuing education and the establishment of the Society for University Extension in Liverpool and District took place in October 1899. The Society provided courses for a wider audience and with great public appeal. Courses under the auspices of the Society were run in Aintree, Ormskirk, Waterloo, Crosby and Port Sunlight. At the time, admission charges for a course of six lectures ranged from 2s.6d. to 5s. The most popular subjects were history, geography and literature, which remain the most popular subjects today. Thus, ‘continuing education’ remains a key part of the university through its Centre for Lifelong Learning.

Southport University Extension Society (SUES) was itself founded, in 1896, at the outset of the University Extension movement when many towns in Britain had similar organisations, The link with The University of Liverpool has always been a strong feature of its organisation and in the course of its history SUES has carried out a range of educational activities, including courses and lectures and visits.

One by one most university extension societies have faded out, partly because other agencies offered alternative arrangements. At the same time, many universities themselves have made outreach part of their central organisation. In the United Kingdom, some universities work together on this endeavour through the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning (UALL) while the Age-Friendly University (AFU) approach is a more recently established movement incorporating universities across North America. Meanwhile, the Open University continues to meet the needs for a more structured and certificated approach to learning beyond the normal university experience and organisations such as the University of the Third Age (U3A) provide leaning that is more social and less academic in nature.

However, a recent and most generous bequest from Muriel Wilde, a former member, has given SUES a new lease of life. The funds provided have been used to enhance the society’s equipment and, most importantly, to subsidise courses to increase and enable access to learning. Indeed, over recent years membership has risen dramatically. SUES has therefore endured and in doing so has developed its own distinctive character. Although it has had its ups and downs, it has survived two world wars and numerous political changes. Most recently, it has survived the coronavirus pandemic by continuing to produce learning opportunities on-line. It is in good shape to face the future and to continue to provide a programme of activities that clearly meet a local need.