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What Should Universities Be?

What are universities becoming? A plea from the future

By John-Erik Hansson, European University Institute; Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh, European University Institute, and Ola Innset, European University Institute

The role of the university as a place of education and research, as an employer, and as an important part of the social landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade.

As PhD students from various European and North American academic backgrounds, we are keenly aware of these developments and have been involved within or against them – often both at the same time. One of the most pressing issues from our perspective is that of the workforce in universities, especially the collapse of working conditions for many academic and non-academic staff.

Professors, who once enjoyed excellent working conditions in Europe and North America, are now being subjected to stricter, stranger, and more noxious standards. They are pressured into constant external grant applications, and are threatened with severe sanctions if the administration considers the results of this search inadequate. The case of Stefan Grimm, a professor at Imperial College London who was found dead in September 2014 shortly after a distressing email exchange about funding, is one tragic example.

Professors are increasingly being judged according to various forms of ranking, both state sponsored (such as the Research Excellence Framework in the UK) and international ones such as the Shanghai ranking and the Times Higher Education ranking of global reputation. These rankings, as Cambridge historian Stefan Collini argues, do not actually reflect the excellence of the research, or the quality of the university. And yet, they matter tremendously to university administrators, students, and state officials.

Working conditions under strain

Of course, professors are not the only academic workers at a university. There are throngs of other individuals involved in the production of knowledge. These include temporary teaching staff, “research assistants”, or graduate students who often combine their own thesis-related work with teaching and with non-thesis related “research assistance”. It has been argued that some of these schemes provide valuable experience for graduate students, allowing them to be more competitive in the clogged-up academic labour market.

But this experience can come with unpleasant strings attached, such as less than adequate working conditions. Or teaching opportunities without pay, as recently proposed by our own institution, the European University Institute.

Temporary teaching staff are frequently employed in dire conditions, as in the United States, but also in the “social-democratic paradises” of Scandinavia. High competition, low pay, few to no benefits and very unstable contracts have become the rule, rather than the exception. In Norway, for example, as much as 20% of all university and college employees are hired on temporary contracts.

Such harsh conditions make it particularly difficult for members of historically disadvantaged groups, such as women, people from lower social classes, and those with a migrant background to succeed, as they are the ones most affected by the low pay and lack of benefits. The result is a less socially and intellectually diverse university.

Labour issues boil over

We should not forget that an often neglected but huge part of the university-employed labour force consists of non-academic staff. As an institution, the university does not simply produce knowledge – it also consumes a vast amount of services. These run from university administration to cleaning and catering.

The workers who perform these tasks are to a significant extent, the life-blood of the university. And yet their important contribution often remains unnoticed even when their working conditions, and therefore their livelihoods, are being attacked, as has happened in recent years. As with young academics, those who are overwhelmingly affected by these degrading labour conditions come from underprivileged backgrounds. They are often women, migrants or both and do not usually have ready access to the media to fight back.

Protests at McGill University, Montreal, in 2011.
shahk, CC BY-ND

In late 2011, in Montreal, members of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association went on strike for almost four months. They did so in opposition to a new contract proposed by the administration. The university wanted wage cuts in real terms, and negative (or dangerous) changes to benefit schemes including pensions.

Across the Atlantic in 2013, students and staff at the University of Sussex, occupied a medical school lecture theatre, protesting against the university’s continued privatisation of services that threatened working conditions of staff including porters, caterers and security workers.

State-led privatisation

The responsibility of national governments for “marketisation” and the drive for privatisation in higher education is sometimes underestimated, both within and outside academia. Reforms aimed at privatisation are very often the result of government intervention in the management of universities, and have been imposed from the top down. This has been done by governments of both the centre-right and the centre-left.

Similarly, resistance to these trends comes from both a diverse alliance of the radical-left, who draw on theories of financialisation and neo-liberalism to explain our current economic situation, and from more conservative scholars who see themselves as the protectors of ancient academic tradition.

As young scholars, we are part of the university’s future. It seems evident to us that we should ask questions about what universities are for. But in so doing, we must not forget to ask another, bolder question: “what should universities be?”

There is no “going back” to any perceived golden age, but it is beyond doubt that there are aspects both of the academic tradition and of the post-war ideal of affordable or free higher education that are worth defending. As institutions charged with the important task of producing new knowledge, universities should not be desperately mimicking already outdated forms of corporate organisation, but rather be leading the way towards something better.

This article was written with the assistance of Tiago Matos, Kimon Markatos, Hannah Elsisi and Tommaso Giordani. It is part of a series on Universities at the crossroads.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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Harvard, Harvard, Harvard?

Why the US liberal arts tradition failed to take hold in Europe

By Andrea Mariuzzo, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa

Parasites, pedants and superfluous men and women. Those are some of the accusations that have been levelled against historians and humanities scholars, according to Anthony Grafton, former president of the American Historical Association. He argues in favour of a general education, rooted in the humanities, that can make students independent and analytic thinkers. This is something that, he says:

Matters more than ever in the current media world, in which lies about the past, like lies about the present, move faster than ever before.

Academics around the world widely share these views. Some European educators, such as the founder of the New College of the Humanities in London, A C Grayling, claim a broader agenda of learning through the reference to the value of the humanities in “rendering people fit to deal with unpredictable … challenges”.

Yet while the liberal arts tradition of “general education” remains embedded into American higher education, in Europe, it has been left aside.

The Harvard model

The US inherited the “liberal education” pattern from Britain, originally designed for the education of privileged youngsters. It was based on a complete and well-organised introduction to human knowledge in art, literature, science, and social life, through an overview of classical studies and the knowledge of western intellectual tradition.

In the 20th century, facing an increase in student numbers in secondary and tertiary education as populations expanded, several US reformers argued that the extension of access to a common body of information and ideas was more important than splitting curricula up into different vocations. It would be better for the democratisation of tertiary education rolled out to the masses, they argued.

Their most influential document was the report General Education in a Free Society, prepared between 1943-45 by a group of Harvard faculty members and inspired by their president James Bryant Conant, an advocate for equal opportunity and meritocracy in intellectual careers.

James Bryant Conant

The committee’s objective was a reform of Harvard’s curricula, but its conclusions involved the American education system as a whole and have had a lasting impact. In the struggle of American civilisation against the totalitarian threat of World War II, they said that a general introduction to western cultural heritage would help foster the necessary qualities for free and responsible citizenship.

They argued that reflection and dialogue on great ideas of the past were the bases for critical thinking and for the identification with common values. A “well-rounded” general preparation was important to acquire the flexibility of mind, self-knowledge, and understanding of the world needed to choose a profession. And college programmes based on common subjects rather than on elective choices would facilitate the academic integration of gifted students, regardless of their background.

The committee’s proposals centred on the connection between comprehensive high schools, designed for universal attendance, and post-secondary curricula. They wanted to integrate vocational programmes within a set of courses devoted to a dynamic presentation of the realisations of human knowledge.

The ‘Sputnik shock’

President Harry S Truman (centre) with Conant in 1948

The idea that general education was a tool for a truly democratic school system influenced post-war federal policy. A report called Higher Education in American Democracy, prepared in 1947 by a commission appointed by President Harry Truman, suggested all levels of education were aimed at “a fuller realisation of democracy”, “international understanding” and “the application of … trained intelligence to the solution of … problems”.

This was to be achieved through the administration of a broad and well-organised set of non-vocational subjects. After the 1957 “Sputnik shock” – major curricula reform sparked by the Russians being first to launch a satellite – funding programmes for the improvement of the US education system followed some of these guidelines.

Reformers across the Atlantic

In the same period, American public diplomats tried to influence education reforms in Western Europe, in view of the integration of North-Atlantic school systems and their cooperation in cold-war competition. Not by chance, in the 1950s Conant and his collaborators visited West Germany, Italy, Britain, and Switzerland as policy advisers.

They argued that European reformers needed to delay the choice between academic and vocational training – made when pupils were about 11. They also thought Europe’s education systems should reduce the strong distinction among traditionally academic and purely vocational secondary school curricula, still characterised by the presence of privileged subjects for admission to university and by the reference to the study of Latin and literature as an element of selection rather than inclusion.

Their advice to Europe was also to lessen the specialisation of university faculties, which were still designed for the advanced preparation of an elite group of professional intellectuals. Instead, higher education should be transformed into a moment to complete the cultural and personal development for a growing number of students.

Despite the extension of compulsory schooling, European education maintained a higher fragmentation of curricula. Reformers could not obtain the integration of all school cycles within a well-defined project of learning proposed by the US example. In fact, an agreement on further changes among political leaders proved to be hard to achieve. Reformers also faced the opposition of several conservative education professionals.

Today, two continents divided

These deep-rooted differences are still clear today. Even vocal critics of American universities say “liberal arts” programs “are still the best that higher education offers” and represent a wise investment, compared with “majors in fields like furniture design”.

As for Europe, some scholars now believe that the Bologna Process – an ongoing project to make higher education comparable across Europe – is inspired by a misconceived “American model”. They argue that it has been built around concepts of “employability” and the “student-as-customer”, and promotes further specialisation of training.

To counteract this, the education historian, Jesper Eckhardt Larsen, has argued that the American liberal arts tradition “facilitates a breadth of cultivation … [which] is relevant for life rather than just for work”. It may be a good starting point to re-orient European higher education policies.

This article is part of our series, Universities at the crossroads.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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Universities, Marketization and the State in Historical Perspective

In the context of current debates over free speech on campus and the privatization of the government’s student loan assets, here’s a piece – recently published at The Conversation, an excellent site co-sponsored by the University of Birmingham – which tries to set current events into historical and international perspective.


In the race to turn higher education into a market, we’re ignoring lessons from history

By Simon Jackson, University of Birmingham; Ann Thomson, European University Institute, and Stefan Nygard, University of Helsinki

Universities around the world today face pressure to conform to economic rationality and contribute to national innovation. Though often presented as a revolution, driven by “globalisation” or other vague buzzwords, this is nothing new. Research and teaching have never been free from external constraints and public universities have long been expected to justify the resources society devotes to them.

But universities feel threatened and increasingly incapable of fulfilling their primary functions. The question at the centre of most current debates on university reform is to what extent universities themselves should determine the goals, values and norms of pedagogical and scientific practice. For politicians and the general public, academic freedom – even as a noble principle honoured mainly in the breach – is becoming meaningless.

Debates on the freedom of higher education are as old as the university. But today’s ideologically imposed constraints are very different from the financial dependence of public universities on the state after 1945. The current international trend towards semi-private, semi-public universities poses new challenges to academic freedom. This is exemplified by the dominance of market-based vocabulary and principles for scientific conduct.

And the adoption of corporate management models is leading to the authoritarian concentration of power within universities. Critical voices opposed to current reforms argue that intellectual autonomy is being sacrificed to an unworkable vision of financial autonomy for public universities.

From Humboldt on…

These debates are at the heart of a collection of articles on The Conversation. The pieces shed much needed historical light on the current restructuring of higher education and research – in Europe and beyond. They emerge from a recent major conference on higher learning and politics.

The cross-national historical comparisons presented here illustrate the peculiarities of the current reform culture. They also demonstrate the historical complexity of the relationship between university and society, and warn against national parochialism. When told there is no alternative, we should look abroad for ready proof to the contrary.

Higher education, society, politics, and the market have had very different interconnections in different countries. As a result, despite the wide influence of marketisation ideology, there are real differences around the world reflected in public discussions on the future of the universities. We give a flavour of that variety here.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of the modern university.
Lestat (Jan Mehlich). Wikimedia., CC BY-SA

The public universities of contemporary Europe date from 1945, yet they are based on the early 19th century Humboldtian ideal of academic freedom, and on the value of faculty members who both teach and conduct research. Spreading round the world, this model gave rise to numerous local variations, including in the Anglo-American sphere, which in the 20th century overtook the German-French universities.

Local variations to similar problems

Today, the dominance of English-language universities is evident in many different regions of the world. Yet as the article on Japan in this series on will illustrate, the mix of internationally circulating university models and national traditions of higher education has produced very different results. Despite pressure to homogenise, the introduction of marketising principles of university management has provoked very different reactions around the world.

As Italian historian Andrea Mariuzzo shows, idealisation of elite American universities is nothing new in global higher education. But nor is misrepresentation of the US system in order to justify various national projects. Mariuzzo examines Harvard reformers’ efforts in 1945 to define the balance between general liberal education designed to produce citizens, and specialised instruction supposedly aimed at economic success.

Meanwhile, Japanese historian Shigeru Okayama describes how European models of higher education influenced the Japanese approach from its inception. But he also exposes the failures of the private university system there, and the growing divide between English and Japanese language teaching.

A collective of doctoral researchers at the European University Institute have also provided a view “from below”, explaining how the marketised university is experienced by those who represent its future.

Learning from our history

It is undeniable that some of the current challenges to higher education are specific to our times. But others have a long history, despite being widely seen as new. We often hear that the university is globalising. In fact the nation state remains a key player, and global academia remains primarily a space for international competition.

Within this space, all kinds of international honours contribute to national prestige, and individual scholars mobilise international recognition for national purposes. Distinguishing between which reforms are truly new and which are merely presented as such, and grasping the interplay between global trends and national situations will help us think about how to react in the face of today’s challenges.

This is the first in our series, Universities at the crossroads.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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Non-state humanitarianisms

Save the children fund appeal for Russian children

You may have missed the week of posts over on Saving Humans recently written by staff and postgrads involved with the Non-State Humanitarianism research network, an AHRC-funded initiative. Take a look:

Click image for source (a post on the Save the Children blog)

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Histories of the supernatural

Jose Guadalupe Posada, Calavera PoncianistaAutumn term round table
Histories of the supernatural

Friday 6 December, 2–5pm
(coffee and cake served from 1.45)
Muirhead tower, room 118

Please email Ben White to confirm attendance, just to help us plan the catering.


Rhodri Hayward (Queen Mary)
Confronting the luminous raccoon: historical writing and the problem of the supernatural

David Gange (Birmingham)
Religion and the rise of magic, 1890–1910

Isak Niehaus (Brunel)
Witchcraft and the South African Bantustans: evidence from Bushbuckridge

This promises to be a lot of fun…

Click image for source, which is Cornell University Library’s splendid collection of images The Fantastic in Art & Fiction. This grinning gentleman is by Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), and his title is Calavera Poncianista.

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Late Soviet Armenia

In our week 7 seminar today Jo Laycock will be telling us about dilemmas of humanitarianism in early Soviet Armenia. So it struck me that a post on late Soviet Armenia might be in order, especially as we’re coming up to the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Spitak earthquake. Mikhail Gorbachev’s formal request to the USA for humanitarian assistance in the wake of this hugely destructive earthquake was the first such request made by a Soviet leader since the second world war: it’s a late cold war example of humanitarian disasters leading to temporary relaxing of suspicions between mutually hostile states (cf. the Greek-Turkish earthquake diplomacy of a decade later). In the end over a hundred countries provided humanitarian assistance.

alexandropol_engravingThis image, from the Armenian architecture website Virtual Ani, shows the city of Alexandropol in the 1870s, with the church of the Holy Saviour dominating the skyline. By 1988, tsarist Alexandropol had become the Soviet city of Leninakan and the same church was surrounded by poorly-constructed apartment blocks. Here’s a picture of the church after the earthquake from the US National Geophysical Data Center’s natural hazards image database:

Holy Saviour church in ruins

Collapse of Church of the Holy Saviour of All, Leninakan, Armenia
C.J. Langer, U.S. Geological Survey

The church now stands in the Armenian city of Gyumri, and has largely been reconstructed—Virtual Ani has more, and Wikipedia has a detailed page on the 1988 earthquake. But tonight we’ll be hearing about an earlier period in Soviet Armenian history.

Click images for source


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Big city street life

On the Guardian website today they have some pictures by John Thomson, the Edinburgh-born pioneer of street photography. There’s a topical picture of the day, of bonfire night in 1876 (fireworks are going off in the distance as I write this, unless it’s the kids upstairs stamping about) and a gallery of photos from the famous series he published with Adolphe Smith, Street life in London—a copy of the book has just gone up for sale at auction. (It first came out as a series of monthly magazines.)

A Boatwoman, by John ThomsonBut Street life in London was far from being Thomson’s first major work: for most of the decade from 1862 to 1872, he was living and working across east Asia, initially as an instrument-maker but then as a photographer. Wikipedia has these understated words about his exploits:

Thomson’s travels in China were often perilous, as he visited remote, almost unpopulated regions far inland. Most of the people he encountered had never seen a Westerner or camera before. His expeditions were also especially challenging because he had to transport his bulky wooden camera, many large, fragile glass plates, and potentially explosive chemicals.

A Knife-grinder, by John Thomson

As these pictures of a boatwoman and a knife-grinder show, Thomson had plenty of experience of street photography before he returned to Britain and settled in London. But he’d also picked up some experience that would serve him in his later career as a portrait photographer in Mayfair (he got a royal warrant in 1881). This image, for example, shows Mao Changxi, a senior Chinese minister who appears to have a pretty diffident attitude to the camera:

Mao Changxi, by John ThomsonThese images are from the Wellcome Collection, which has a fine selection of Thomson’s Chinese photos to explore here. There’s a web resource at the National Library of Scotland, too, related to a past exhibition—but the photos there are a bit too small to appreciate. It’s a pity, as they include this beautiful land-and-seascape, which I’ve left small so it doesn’t appear too pixellated.

A Canton Junk, by John ThomsonNow there are fireworks going off on the back green, so I’ll leave it at that.

Click images for source — the higher-res Wellcome Collection images are released under a Creative Commons licence


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I’ve been reading Francis Spufford’s book Red Plenty recently—not a history book, not a novel, but something in between. (Much more interesting than most history books, but with more footnotes than most novels that aren’t by David Foster Wallace.) It’s about the Soviet economy in the years around 1960, and it’s a lot more fun than that sounds.

One of the settings for the book is the Siberian science town of Akademgorodok (‘Academytown’), founded outside Novosibirsk in the 1950s by the Soviet Academy of Science. Here it is at the planning stage:

Akademgorodok, opening

The town is outside the city of Novosibirsk, and is formally a part of it. When it was being built, different disciplines squabbled bitterly over who would get which building: ‘Cytology and Genetics itself obtained its premises by seizing, one weekend, a facility promised to the Computer Centre, and the Computer Centre nearly lost its next earmarked site as well, to an opportunistic grab by a group researching transplant surgery.’


And the many advantages that the academics enjoyed meant that their Siberian neighbours weren’t always helpful: ‘Envy of the town’s material privileges was a factor in the unhelpfulness of the city government of Novosibirk [sic] over such issues as the water supply. At one point, the city stole an entire trainload of supplies earmarked for Akademgorodok, and Academician Lavrentiev, the de facto mayor, had to ring Khrushchev personally to get it back.’ (Spufford, notes to p. 151—his main source for all this is Paul Josephson’s New Atlantis Revisited).

The place went into a tailspin after the Soviet period but—as some of the references to the Wikipedia article show—has recently been trying to reinvent itself as a tech hub, a kind of Silicon Forest.

Akademgorodok, 21st centuryIt has something of a web presence, from the unexpected photos of sunbathers and sailing boats on on TripAdvisor that came up when I looked on Google images (they’re on the Ob Sea, a large artificial lake, and resort, next to the town) to the excellent Facebook page that I got these images from. That’s well worth a look, even if like me you speak no Russian. It has lots of archival photos and other resources, including this short cine-film tour, with its er delightful backing music:

And there’s Spufford’s own website for the book, linked at the top of the page, which includes his travel notes from a research trip to Siberia in 2006. If you’re looking for something to keep you busy in reading week, you could do a lot worse than spend a bit of time in high Soviet Siberia.

Click images for source

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Mind your Ks and Qs


There is a story about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk practising his signature in the Latin alphabet. The image is incongruous: the most powerful man in Turkey sits frowning over his own name, breaking in the unfamiliar strokes like a schoolboy. He had decreed in 1928 that Turkish would now be written in Latin rather than Arabic script – severing ties with the Ottoman past and making a generation of readers illiterate. In 1934 he passed a law requiring everyone to adopt a surname: Turks at the time tended to go by titles, patronymics or the name of their profession. It’s unclear how Kemal came by his name (he tacked on ‘Father of the Turks’ after 1934; it’s still illegal for anyone else to use it), but as for romanising his initials, the story goes that he tried spelling it first with a Q, then with a K – and deciding that he preferred the latter, banned the letter Q from the alphabet.

It’s not true—but it is true that the letter Q, like the letters X and W, was banned in Turkey from the introduction of the Latin alphabet until last month. Yasmine Seale explains why on the LRB blog; for more on the ‘democracy package’ which includes the un-banning of these letters, check out this post on Kamil Pasha.

Click image for source
Don’t believe the bit about Atatürk’s signature being a popular tattoo? Evidence.

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Garden cities

Plan du projet de la cité-jardin de Stains, 1920Our colleague Matt Houlbrook’s blog post today about Welwyn Garden City in 1920 got me thinking about the cité-jardin of Stains, north of Paris, built at about the same time and very much under the influence of les garden city across the Channel. I spent a happy afternoon wandering around it in September of last year with some friends, one of whom was working there on a public history and heritage project. You can read more about it in slightly erratic English here, or in greater detail in French here (or just look at the pictures, which are better on the French site). Stains, by the way, is pronounced more like ‘Stan’ than ‘stains’. I’ll admit I find it funny every time I see a sign for it somewhere on a main road in the Parisian banlieue.

The Stains cité-jardin was one of several ambitious social housing projects carried out in the Paris region in the 1920s and 30s. Here’s a striking modernist map produced by the Office public d’habitations du département de la Seine in 1933, showing where they all were:


Most of them ran into significant problems later—because they didn’t get the sustained investment they needed to maintain their initial high standards; because the very moderne layouts of public and private areas turned out to make for noisy, echoing, and unpleasantly exposed public spaces; above all, because local authorities lost interest in them and the people who’d been decanted into them. I found myself thinking of the ‘Bullring’—not the shopping centre in Birmingham but the social housing in central Liverpool whose official title is St Andrews Gardens, which ran into many of the same problems. I asked my mum about it just now; she texted back to say she remembered its bad reputation. (It’s now been redeveloped as student accommodation.) Here’s an excellent photo by Flickr user SomeDriftwood:

St Andrews Gardens

St Andrews Gardens is the sort of development—possibly the same one, anonymized as ‘Roundhouse’—where Howard Parker did the research for his classic urban ethnography, View from the boys (1974), which notes on p. 25 that:

In the 1950s the ‘gardens’ disappeared, due to vandalism and neglect, and the whole courtyard area was tarmaced. [This didn’t make the acoustics any less harsh.] Even a Housing Manager admitted that ‘Tarmac is a supreme example of dealing with things in an ad hoc manner. It is the Corporation’s message to the tenants—we’ve finished with you now, we give up.’ It was not until the 1960s that the air-raid shelters in the courtyard were removed.

Something similar happened to the nice little individual vegetable gardens in the areas behind the blocks in the cité-jardin de Stains that I visited, though the ones I saw had just been allowed to become overgrown and litter-strewn—they hadn’t been tarmacked over, and the whole area is now getting a bit of attention (whereas other parts of the Paris banlieue, including more recent cités a few streets away, are indeed given the neglect/tarmac/demolish treatment).

Not too far from Stains, and particularly hard to read in the upper right-hand part of the map, was the housing development of La Muette at Drancy:


These were the first high-rise residential tower blocks in France, built in 1931–34. The whole complex was confiscated by the Nazis after the occupation of France, and the horseshoe shaped low-rise complex to the upper left—built around a courtyard with the unfriendly dimensions of 200m long by 40m wide, and incomplete at the time—became the Drancy internment camp, used first as a police detention centre and then more notoriously as a holding camp for Jews prior to their deportation to the death camps. As well as building watchtowers and surrounding the place with barbed wire, they tarmacked the courtyard.

Click images for source

Editorial update: I corrected a reference to ‘the Bulks’:
this wasn’t a shortened nickname for the Bullring, it turns out,
but an invention of the predictive text editor on my mum’s mobile.

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