Ah, the hallowed halls of academia, where young minds come to gain the knowledge and skills for their future careers and to further the collective knowledge of the world. Universities have a long history in the United Kingdom, and some of the best schools in the world can be found here. Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, and St. Andrew’s University are just some of the top names in British higher education. Follow along below as we cover the history of British university education from the Medieval Period to the present and how it helped change Britain.
Higher education in the United Kingdom as we know it began not too long after the Norman Invasion. The University of Oxford is believed to have been founded in 1096 as evidence exists that teaching began there, but the formal date when the university came into being is undetermined. Its ranks of students grew in 1167 when King Henry II banned students from studying at the University of Paris. The Chancellorship of the university was created in 1201. It’s also in Oxford where the original “Town vs Gown” conflicts originated. In 1209, a clerk studying liberal arts had accidentally killed a woman in the city and fled. In searching for the killer, the mayor and townsfolk happened upon his residence and, not finding him, arrested his three roommates instead. King John later ordered the three clerks to be put to death, and they were hanged outside of the city, creating a rift between the university and the town that would culminate less than two hundred years later in the St. Scholastica Day Riots.
Fearing further violence, several scholars left Oxford and moved to Cambridge, where they founded the University of Cambridge. The university received a royal charter in 1231, an act that was followed by the University of Oxford receiving its own royal charter in 1248. In the 15th Century, Scotland saw the formation of its first three major universities. A group of Augustinian clergymen moved to St. Andrew’s in 1410 following the Papal Schism to establish a school of higher learning. They received a charter of privilege from Bishop of St. Andrews in 1411 and then a papal bull in 1413, the official establishing date for the University of St. Andrew’s. Papal Bulls were also given for the formations of the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow, and King’s College, Aberdeen shortly thereafter.
More universities began to form in the early 19th Century as the French revolution and the Napoleonic Wars effectively shut down most of higher education in Continental Europe. The “redbrick universities” began to form in 1824 with the founding of ten medical colleges. The first technical institutes, later polytechnic colleges came about from 1821 to 1838. University College London had something of a controversial start in 1826 when it was formed as a joint-stock company that not only called itself a university but had no association with the Anglican Church and expressed its willingness to give degrees to Non-Anglicans (though it was not granted this power). All three of these actions prompted quite a reaction from Parliament, which formed King’s College, London by royal charter in 1829 and eventually to UCL in 1836.
In the mid-19th Century, the first women were admitted to degrees at Bedford College in London, the first university for women in the UK. Non-Anglicans were finally allowed to take degrees at Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Durham during this time. Even more provincial colleges, universities, medical schools, and technical schools continued to open over the remainder of the 19th Century, providing more opportunities than ever for upward social mobility. This expansion increased further after World War II, and in the same period, virtually all colleges in the United Kingdom achieved independent university status. The University of Newcastle was one of the first in this time to become a university by an act of Parliament rather than a royal charter. Polytechnic schools and Scottish colleges achieved university status after the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. Today, the opportunities for an education past secondary school are virtually limitless.