Friday, 4 February 2011

University education 1800-1870

These were not glorious years for the ‘ancient’ universities. Cambridge[1] and Oxford[2] reposed in a social and curricular inertia that limited their value to society.[3] Their intake was socially remarkably stable and narrow: between 1752 and 1886, 51% of Oxford students and 58% of those at Cambridge came from two social groups, the gentry and the clergy. The future careers were even narrower: 64% of Oxford and 54% of Cambridge men went into the Church. The student body was limited by its connection with the Church of England and the requirement at both universities that graduates should subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles 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 that 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.

What was the function of 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 such as Mark Pattison and Henry Halford Vaughan were influenced by German universities and accepted the discovery of new knowledge as part of their obligations.[4] 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.[5] 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’.[6] 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.[7]

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 two years later 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 tripos in Natural Sciences and in 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 the revision of 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 professoriat.

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% of its students going into Holy Orders.[8] 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 as 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 unimpressed 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.[9] 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 (1825), Sheffield (1827), Birmingham (1828), Bristol (1828), Leeds (1830), Liverpool (1834) and Newcastle (1834). Both Durham and Owens before 1870 were abortive provincial initiatives stifled by the ancient universities and channelled 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.[10] Founded in 1828, it differed from existing institutions in three respects: first, it was free of religious tests and open to nonconformists and unbelievers; secondly, it was to be cheaper than the ancient universities to cater for ‘middling rich people’; and finally, 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 University College 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 keep up with rising population and during the decade between 1855 and 1865 only one in 77,000 went to university. Higher education was still accessible to only a small minority.


[1] Searby, Peter, A history of the University of Cambridge: Vol. 3: 1750-1870, (Cambridge University Press), 1997 and Brooke, C.N.L., A history of the university of Cambridge: Vol. 4: 1870-1990, (Cambridge University Press), 1992.

[2] Brock, M.G. and Curthoys, Mark C., (eds.), The history of the University of Oxford, Vol. 6: Nineteenth-century Oxford, part I, (Oxford University Press), 1997 and The history of the University of Oxford, Vol. 7: Nineteenth-century Oxford, part 2, (Oxford University Press), 2000.

[3] Anderson, R.D., Universities and Elites in Britain since 1800, (Macmillan), 1992, (Cambridge University Press), 1995 is a very useful, short summary of current research on the role of universities in nineteenth century society.

[4] See, Pattison, Mark, Suggestions on academical organisation with especial reference to Oxford, (Edmonston and Douglas), 1868, Sparrow, John, Mark Pattison and the Idea of a University, (Cambridge University Press), 1967, 2008, Jones, H. Stuart, Bill, Intellect and character in Victorian England: Mark Pattison and the invention of the don, (Cambridge University Press), 2007, E.G.W., University reform in nineteenth-century Oxford: a study of Henry Halford Vaughan, 1811-1885, (Oxford University Press), 1973

[5] Newman, J.H., Discourses on the scope and nature of university education: addressed to the Catholics of Dublin, (James Duffy), 1852.

[6] Newman, J.H., The idea of a university: defined and illustrated : I, in nine discourses delivered to the Catholics of Dublin : II, in occasional lectures and essays addressed to the members of the Catholic University, (Longman), 1891, p. 110

[7] Harvie, Christopher, The lights of liberalism: university liberals and the challenge of democracy, 1860-86, (Allen Lane), 1976.

[8] Watson, Nigel, The Durham difference: the story of Durham University, (James & James), 2007.

[9] Fiddes, Edward, Chapters in the History of Owens College and of Manchester University, 1851-1914, (Manchester University Press), 1937

[10] Harte, N.B. and North, John, The world of University College, London, 1828-1990, (London University Press), 1991 and Harte, N.B., The University of London, 1836-1986: an illustrated history, (Athlone), 1986.

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