These were not glorious years for the ‘ancient’ universities. Cambridge and Oxford reposed in a social and curricular inertia that limited their value to society.
- The social class of intake was remarkably stable and narrow: between 1752 and 1886 51 per cent of Oxford students and 58 per cent of those at Cambridge came from two social groups, the gentry and the clergy. The future careers were even narrower: 64 per cent of Oxford and 54 per cent of Cambridge men went into the Church. The student body was limited by its connection with the Church of England. The requirement at both universities was that graduates should subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles that excluded Nonconformists. They were thus isolated from the new potential clientele of Nonconformist business families enriched by industrialisation.
- High costs—a course could cost over £300 per year—also limited the social composition of courses. Oxford became socially exclusive in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. As a result many people needed scholarships, the bulk of which were in classics and mathematics. This had an impact of the school curriculum and led to a focus on and perpetuation of classical education in grammar and public schools. The provision of fellowships also had a similar effect. Most fellowships were tied to classics at Oxford and mathematics at Cambridge. In this way the whole financial scholarship-fellowship system locked the older subjects into the ancient universities.
This was also tied into the power struggle within the institutions between the university and the colleges. At Oxford and Cambridge the colleges were powerful and wealthy and the universities relatively weak as financial and administrative entities. This suited colleges who ran like private companies. They were aware the classics and mathematics were very cheap subjects to teach and did not entail research or expensive equipment or even rapidly growing libraries. The colleges were not only conservative about new subjects for financial reasons, they also feared a tilting of the balance of power in favour of the universities. More university power as, for example, in the building of common science laboratories, meant less college autonomy. Curricular conservatism was rooted in a defence of a private financial system and resistance to the growth of centralised power in the university.
The debate on the role of universities in society had several dimensions. There was an important argument about research as a function of the university. Advocates of research in the 1860s like Mark Pattison and Henry Halford Vaughan were influenced by German universities and accepted the discovery of new knowledge as part of their obligations. They wished to move Oxford and Cambridge away from being merely advanced public schools towards a more liberal education with more money on research on the sciences, history and archaeology. This viewpoint inevitably involved a clash with the established college position. The financial provision of scholarships and fellowships outside the classics and mathematics brought conflict with the curricular conservatism in college-based anti-research teaching. Until some changes were made to the autonomy of the colleges there could be no change in teaching and the colleges would continue to exert a stranglehold not just over university but also the schools that aimed to send their boys to Oxford or Cambridge.
Curriculum conservatism was defended as a positive virtue in a lively debate about ‘liberal education’ in relation to universities. This was an important argument against those who attacked the classics as a patently useless form of study on crudely utilitarian grounds. This argument had two basic propositions:
- There is a distinction between ends and means. Some activities and qualities are ends in themselves and cannot be justified by reference to some ends beyond themselves. This is the essence of the ‘education for its own sake’ case.
- As well as being ‘an end in itself’, the study of the classics fitted a man for no particular occupation thereby fitting him for all. This was a belief that was to become very influential in the 1850s when the general intellectual training given by classics was regarded as the most suitable for civil service recruitment through public examinations.
The culmination of the old liberal education ideal was expressed by John Henry Newman in his Discourses on University Education that he gave in Dublin in 1852. Liberal education made the gentlemen and was ‘the especial characteristic or property of a University and of a gentleman’. The end result of such education was ‘a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid equitable dispassionate mind’. The purpose was not vocational training but the general development of the intellect and of moral and social qualities for their own sake. This expressed what the ancient universities thought about themselves and what many others conceived the purpose of a university education to be.
From 1850 the ancient universities began a limited reform. Following Royal Commissions for both universities in 1852, an Act for Oxford in 1854 and for Cambridge in 1856 enabled Nonconformists both to matriculate and to graduate. This solved one problem but created another for graduated Nonconformists were still barred from becoming fellows of colleges throughout the 1860s and were not finally removed until the Universities’ Religious Tests Act 1871, that also obviated the need for fellows to be ordained clergymen. There was also some curricular innovation. In 1848 Cambridge established new triposes in Natural Sciences and Moral Sciences, that included history and law. In Oxford two years later the Schools of Law and Modern history and of Natural Sciences were established. Since both universities now claimed to teach science to degree level they both built laboratories: the Oxford Museum in 1855 and the New Museum at Cambridge in 1865.
The watershed for Oxford and Cambridge came after 1870 with the Cleveland Commission of 1873 leading to the Act of 1877 and in turn to Commissioners to revise the statutes of colleges. The latter were obliged to release some of their funds for the creation of scientific professorships and university institutions. Only then, with this rebalancing of power between colleges and the universities was it possible to create an Oxford and Cambridge more oriented to research in science and scholarship, professional training, a widening curriculum and a strong professariat.
Oxford and Cambridge had considerable defects that were only beginning to be resolved in the 1850s and 1860s but there was no effective civic university movement that could serve as an alternative.
- The Church of England had founded Durham University in 1832 but it became virtually a clergy training college with 90 per cent of its students going into Holy Orders. By trying to ape Oxford without having the latter’s resources it had very little success either with poor students or in the eyes of local industrialists who rejected it in favour of Newcastle as a centre of urgently needed mining education.
- Owens College, Manchester, fared little better. It began in 1851 with £100,000 left by John Owen, a local textile manufacturer. Yet its intention was not a technological university to serve industry but a college to give ‘instruction in the branches of learning and science taught in the English universities’. It was to be the Oxford of the north! The Manchester business classes were not impressed and it was not until the 1870s when it acquired a new sense of purpose in service to industry that it began to take its place in the forefront of the civic universities movement.
- A more vital root of the future civic universities lay in the emergence of provincial medical schools. The Apothecaries’ Act 1815 made it illegal to practise as an apothecary unless licensed by the Society of Apothecaries. This stimulated the creation of medical schools to prepare students for the examinations and, from 1831, those of the Royal College of Surgeons. Schools were founded in Manchester , Sheffield , Birmingham , Bristol , Leeds , Liverpool  and Newcastle .
Both Durham and Owens before 1870 were abortive provincial initiatives stifled by the ancient universities and misguided into the dead end of being deferential and unsuccessful imitations rather than challenging alternatives. The medical schools, by contrast, provided one of the strands out of which civic universities were to emerge after 1870. The origins of the University of London, by contrast, were rooted in an open antipathy to the ancient universities and not with any concern to reproduce them. Founded in 1828, it differed from existing institutions in three respects:
- It was free of religious tests and open to dissenters and unbelievers.
- It was to be cheaper than the ancient universities and to cater for ‘middling rich people’.
- There was a strong emphasis on professional training in the medical, legal, engineering and economic studies neglected at Oxford and Cambridge. It was to be useful and vocational.
The Church of England did not regard the creation of the new college [University] in ‘Godless Gower Street’ with kindness and established their own rival King’s College in 1828 as an exclusively Anglican institution but also with a focus on vocational training. From 1836 the University of London became the body managing examinations and degrees for its now constituent colleges, University and King’s. From 1858 it became the examining body dealing not only with London institutions but providing external examinations for all comers. The chief criticism levelled at universities in this period was that their neglect of science meant they could contribute little to the needs of industrialisation. Oxford and Cambridge produced clergy, gentlemen and, after 1850, civil servants. They did not appeal to the commercial classes or to the new professions. Nor did Durham and Manchester before 1870. Only the London colleges thrived on a close linkage with the new business and professional classes. Nor did the university sector as a whole keep up with rising population. By 1855-65 only one in 77,000 went to university. Higher education was still accessible to only a small minority.
In the 1820s there was an attempt to create a scientific culture and technical education for the working classes. George Birkbeck, a Glasgow doctor who had settled in London, was instrumental with Benthamite radicals in establishing the London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823. His aim was to provide tuition in physics and chemistry for artisans and mechanics of various kinds. This was important in its own right but became the model for a provincial movement. By 1826 there were 100 mechanics’ institutes and by 1841 over 300.
In some cities, initially at least, they tried to serve a serious educative and scientific purpose. In Leeds, for example, local businessmen were strongly in favour of scientific education. Things, however, began to go wrong. Birkbeck had doubted that literacy levels in England were high enough to support further education of some rigour. His doubts were well founded and, as a result, many of the institutes took different paths in response to various other social pressures. Many concentrated on basic education in reading and writing while others became social clubs foreshadowing the working men’s club movement of the 1860s and some centres of radical political activity.
Most institutes forgot their origins and were taken over by the middle classes either as cultural centres for themselves — in Sheffield 88 per cent of members were business or professional men — or as institutions in which an attempt could be made to persuade the working classes of the virtues of temperance or classical political economy. Two things are clear about this movement:
- The institutes were not an entire failure. They fulfilled a variety of useful roles relevant to their time and locality and whatever path away from the original intention was taken as a result of local circumstances.
- Whatever Birkbeck had hoped, the mechanics’ institutes did not prove to be a mass movement giving working men that scientific culture that the middle classes had enjoyed since the mid eighteenth century.
In the mid-century the state became involved in the promotion of technical education in national institutions focused in London. In 1845 the Royal College of Chemistry was established and the Government School of Mines followed this in 1851. Both these institutions benefited from the Great Exhibition of 1851 whose profits of £186,000 together with a Government grant purchased the site in South Kensington where it was intended to gather various scientific institutions. In 1853 the School of Mines incorporated the nationalised College of Chemistry, the latter transferring to South Kensington in 1872 and the former joining it piecemeal thereafter.
In 1853 government created the Department of Science and Arts that controlled the School and the College. It also tried to create science schools in the provinces but with limited success. More importantly, in 1859 the new Department began a series of science examinations for schools and paid grants to such schools for successful pupils on a payment by results system. In 1860 nine schools with 500 pupils participated but by 1870 there were 799 schools with over 34,000 pupils. This represented a considerable effort to introduce science teaching into schools, its standards secured by the financial control of inspectors.
So how successful was the development of technical education? Britain had won most of the prizes at the Great Exhibition of 1851 but performance sixteen years later in Paris were poor. Despite government involvement in technical education, there was a strong feeling that we had fallen behind France and Prussia. National unease generated the civic university movement of the 1870s and 1880s but found immediate expression in the 1868 Parliamentary Select Committee on scientific education chaired by the ironmaster Bernhard Samuelson. This began twenty years of various parliamentary inquiries into science, industry and education that led to improvements in technical education especially after 1890.
Two major points emerge from this:
- The industrial revolution seemed to have struck an economically efficient balance in its provision of education whatever its social deficiencies. Little serious effort was made before 1830 to maintain the elementary education of the mass of the population and this did not have any real adverse effects on economic growth since most of the new occupations being created did not in any case require literate labour. After 1840 Britain was sufficiently rich to finance expensive projects like its railway building and the considerable expansion of investment in education.
- Expenditure on education was postponed but so too was a problem. While scientific and technical information circulated in middle class institutions, for working men the attempt to create a technical education was a failure. Apart from the central institutions in South Kensington and the introduction of technical examinations into schools in the 1860s, there was a dangerous flagging in the provision of technical education.
The roots of a great deal of anxiety about the level of education vis-à-vis Germany in the 1870s and 1880s lay in the lack of development in the 1850s and 1860s. Industrial success bred a lack of urgency to make rising literacy the basis for a higher level of working class scientific training. Britain’s economic decline from the 1870s was, in part, a result of this.
 R.D. Anderson Universities and Elites in Britain since 1800, Macmillan, 1992 is a very useful, and short, summary of current research on the role of universities in nineteenth century society.