Saturday, 19 February 2011

Higher education 1870-1914

The vast growth in and attempt to systematise secondary education was paralleled by a significant, though relatively small, growth and innovation in the university sector. Higher education was still only accessible to a tiny minority. There were changes in the composition of the university population, in the structure of university government and in the curriculum. The 1870s saw the arrival at Oxford and Cambridge both of Nonconformists and of women. The 1871 legislation abolishing university tests untied both undergraduate places and fellowships and in the process allowed fellows to marry. The growing regiment of dons’ wives was augmented by a small number of women students. Girton and Newnham at Cambridge in the early 1870s were joined by Somerville, Lady Margaret Hall and St Anne’s at Oxford in 1879 followed by St Hugh’s and St Hilda’s in 1886 and 1892 respectively. By 1900-1901, there were 296 women students at Cambridge and 239 at Oxford compared to 2,880 and 2,537 male students respectively. Women did not become full members of the university in Oxford until 1919 and in Cambridge until 1948 whereas they were admitted to all the University of London degrees in 1878.

The Royal and Statutory Commissions of the 1850s had begun the process of overhauling college statutes and strengthening the central organs of university government. This was continued in the 1870s but the more ambitious plans were spoiled by the fall in colleges’ income brought about by the agricultural depression. At the same time, a reassertion of control over teaching and pastoral responsibilities by many colleges counter-balanced such trends towards centralisation very powerfully. The breaches in the dominance of Classics and Mathematics towards the end of the 1840s continued and in the early 1870s separate courses in History and Law emerged and the 1890s saw the arrival of courses in English and Modern Languages. Parallel to this was the emergence of research as a systematic postgraduate activity.

Education 14

Operating theatre at London medical school

Change in Oxbridge, however, was a pale reflection of the changes outside it. By 1900, there were more students, women as well as men, in higher education in Great Britain outside than within Oxford and Cambridge. The sequence of foundations was as follows: Newcastle 1871; University College of Wales, Aberystwyth 1872; Leeds 1874; Mason College, Birmingham 1874; Bristol 1876; Firth College, Sheffield 1879; Liverpool 1881; Nottingham 1881; Cardiff 1883; Bangor 1883; Reading 1892; Southampton 1902. Many of these institutions began by taking external London degree examinations before seeking Royal Charters to enable them to grant their own degrees.[1]

Other institutions, often also exploiting the external London examining umbrella, grew in London itself: medical schools attached to the teaching hospitals; in South Kensington the Royal School of Mines, the Royal College of Science and the Central Technical College formed the great Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1907; the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895; and the women’s colleges, Bedford (1849), Westfield (1882) and Royal Holloway (1886). But the University of London only acquired a teaching as well as an examining role in 1899, following the University of London Act 1898 that brought all these and other institutions together in a complex and uneasy federation. By 1900-1901, full-time students outside Oxford and Cambridge totalled almost 8,000 in England and a further 1,250 in Wales.

Funding the civic university movement proved problematic and most universities were operating on a shoe-string compared to the endowments of Oxbridge. In individual cases, university colleges benefited from the generosity of local business: in Birmingham, for example, the Chamberlains played a central role. But this was not enough. From 1839, the University of London had small recurrent grants in recognition of the imperial and colonial as well as the domestic function of its examining role. In 1883-1884, the Welsh parliamentary lobby succeeded in securing short-term grant aid for the three Welsh colleges; and in 1880 the Treasury finally conceded the principle of grant aid to the English institutions outside Oxbridge. By 1906, direct Treasury grants to universities amounted to £100,000.

The full-time student population in all English and Welsh universities in 1914 only accounted for one% of the age group. Universities still catered for the elite. The advance of the new professional middle-classes gradually reduced the dominance of the landed gentry and clergy and outside Oxbridge, by 1914, the children of the lower middle-classes and skilled artisans were beginning to appear.


[1] Walsh, J.J., ‘The University Movement in the North of England at the End of the Nineteenth Century’, Northern History, Vol. 46, (1), (2009), pp. 113-131.

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