Faculty Research Group

Since the expansion of the British higher education sector in 1992, the words that we use in and about universities have changed. ‘Excellence’, once comparative, now describes an expected norm; ‘impact’, once the object of specialist research by physicists or engineers, is now a compulsory objective for research of any kind; ‘research’ itself, once a particular term for a particular kind of systematic inquiry, is now a catch-all descriptor for what academics do at the weekend. These words have become tools of cultural change, institutional restructuring, and policy reform.

We are a team of researchers from English, History, HPS, Linguistics, and Computing, drawn together by our interest in how words reconstruct university cultures: key words. In meetings supported by CRASSH since Easter 2015, we have identified these words, not by hunch or observation, but with the aid of new tools for the study of linguistic usage, particularly big data analytics and the search technologies of corpus linguistics. Words that move in and out of vogue are a good starting place for seeing what has come to matter in debates about education. So we have developed and searched several large text corpora, drawn from sources such as The Internet Archive, the UK Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills, and The Times, for words that have shifted their usage most dramatically over the last two decades in relation to the terms ‘university’ and ‘higher education’. We are developing an analytical mode that can capture real change in the current debate about the past and future of higher education.

In this academic year, we are refining our research with the help of high-profile administrators and government policy makers, testing our new methodology with academic contributors, and producing a proof-of-concept book. The book will be a multi-authored, open access lexicon of contemporary university keywords, inspired by Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), comprising short, hyperlinked essays that explore the history and changing usage of the words that powerfully structure our universities today.


For more information about the Research group, please email universitykeywords@gmail.com

Administrative assistance:  gradfac@crassh.cam.ac.uk



Ruth Abbott (Faculty of English)
Paul Nulty (CRASSH)
Richard Oosterhoff (CRASSH)
Gabriel Recchia (CRASSH)
John Regan (CRASSH)
Alison Wood (CRASSH)

Programme 2017


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk