When Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, there were only 12 universities in England, and 18 in the whole of the UK. The dramatic changes in higher education of the last few decades have seen this increase to well over a hundred. By contrast, Victoria's reign saw a much more modest increase from four universities to six in England and from ten to thirteen across the UK. From this, it would possible to think that the changes in Elizabeth's time - the Robbins Report, the creation of the post-1992 universities, and the marketisation of higher education - far outweighed those in the Victorian era. But the numbers hide a number of revolutions in English university education in the 19th century that were every bit as dramatic as the more recent changes.
Three of England’s universities - Oxford, Cambridge and Durham - were residential, collegiate universities. But the fourth, yet to award any degrees when Victoria came to the throne, was different. The University of London had been established less than a year earlier, and was designed as a government-controlled, degree-awarding examining board. This enabled it to award degrees to many different colleges, not just in London but across the whole country. Initially, this was restricted to colleges on a list of government-approved institutions. But from just University College London and King’s College London at first, the list grew to include many colleges until it was abandoned completely in 1858.
London University examinations allowed colleges to be established all over the country. Following the model of the colleges in London, university colleges were established in most major towns and cities, later going on to be the ‘red brick’ universities. Other colleges established in the Victorian era evolved to become polytechnics and, from 1992, universities in their own right. The seeds of the explosion in the number of universities under Queen Elizabeth were sown in the reign of Queen Victoria.
The rise of the civic university colleges posed another challenge - how to fund them. It was recognised that, particularly in technical subjects, these institutions were doing essential work. But without the endowments of the three collegiate universities, they had to survive on the fees from their students alone - and these had to be kept low enough to be affordable. In the 1870s, the government started giving grants to some of the university colleges, and by the end of Victoria’s reign there were 13 participating institutions: UCL, KCL and Bedford College in London; Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol and Reading also preparing students for London University exams; Liverpool, Leeds and Owen’s College, Manchester as part of the Victoria University, the Durham College of Science in Newcastle as part of Durham University, University College Dundee as part of St Andrews University, and Birmingham University. There were also three colleges of the University of Wales (at Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Bangor) funded by the government under a separate scheme.
By the end of Victoria’s reign, government funding of university education was well established, and with the creation of the University Grants Committee in 1919 it extended to cover all British universities. Elizabeth’s reign first saw the complete abolition of tuition fees in 1962 and then their reintroduction in 1998, with predictions that the fraction of universities’ income from the government will fall back to levels last seen in Queen Victoria’s time.
A third major change, also linked to the rise of the university colleges, was in the idea of what a university should look like. UCL’s attempt to become a university had resulted, in 1836, in the foundation of the University of London. Owen’s College’s attempt had resulted (due to objections from regional rivals) in the formation of the federal Victoria University in 1880. These were joined in 1893 by a third federal institute, the University of Wales, taking in the three Welsh colleges. For most of Victoria’s reign, it appeared that the future was destined to be university colleges associated with regional federal universities. The University of London was reconstituted as a federal institute between 1898 and 1900, while Newcastle’s colleges were linked with Durham, Dundee with St Andrews, and Reading with Oxford.
But in 1900, the last year of Victoria’s reign, Mason University College in Birmingham became England’s first unitary university. This started a landslide: within ten years, the Victoria University had broken up and its colleges, and most of the independent institutions, had become universities in their own right. Unitary universities, inspired by UCL and realised first with Birmingham, became the pattern for future British universities - before 1900, there were no unitary universities in England; since then only a few collegiate universities (York, Lancaster and Kent in the 1960s, and the University of the Arts London and Roehampton in 2004) have been established. Elizabeth’s reign has also seen the breakup of the University of Wales, and Newcastle and Dundee become independent. London is the only federal university to have survived, although it now has a more confederal structure with most of its larger colleges awarding their own degrees and being de facto independent universities.
The last structural revolution was in university accommodation. Durham had been founded in 1832 partly on the basis of providing university education on a cheaper basis than Oxford or Cambridge. When Durham opened, however, it followed the practice of the older universities’ colleges in letting rooms unfurnished, with students buying in their own food and paying their own servants. But when the second college, Hatfield, opened in 1846 it was decided to try something new. In order to reduce costs, all meals were provided, rooms were furnished, and servants were shared. After the near collapse of the university in the 1860s, this was adopted by the rest of the university. Keble College, Oxford also took on the idea when it was established in 1870 and it eventually became the norm for residential universities.
However, most of the Victorian civic universities were non-residential, drawing their students from their local populations. It was only with the establishment of new residential universities and the addition of residential blocks to the older universities in Queen Elizabeth’s time that halls of residence following the Hatfield scheme became common. This is now standard in university residences around the world, although many opt for self-catering accommodation.
Revolution in Access
In June 1837, just twelve days before Victoria came to the throne, the first students graduated from Durham. Although these were the first university degrees from a new institution in England for over 600 years, the graduates were - like those at Oxford and Cambridge - all Anglicans, and all men. (And, again like Oxford and Cambridge, mostly bound for the priesthood.) But this revolution - the tearing down of religious barriers to university education - was already happening: the new University of London would allow men of all religions and none to take its degrees,
But Victoria’s ascension brought a crisis to the London University. It had barely started operating, and was yet to buy a single book let alone graduate any students, when it was discovered that the royal charter had been accidentally written to expire on the death of William IV. A new charter was hastily issued by the new queen in late 1837. The first London degrees - the first degrees in England open to non-Anglicans - were then awarded, to students from UCL and KCL in 1839.
This was not universally popular - one of the major arguments against giving UCL a charter as a university had been that it wanted to remove religion from higher education, earning it the moniker “the Godless Institution of Gower Street”. John Henry Newman spent the entire second discourse in his Idea of University arguing that an institution had to include theology (although not necessarily the doctrines of a particular church) in its teaching to be regarded as a university.
The idea of getting rid of religious tests (the requirement for students to assent to the doctrines of the Church of England) spread rapidly during Victoria’s reign. Most of the regional colleges followed UCL’s lead in being secular while one of the major exceptions, the Anglican Queen’s College, Birmingham, collapsed and saw many of its departments shift to Mason College (although the theology department still survives, ironically as an ecumencial institute serving three Protestant denominations with its degrees validated by the Catholic Newman University). Durham, too, came close to collapse in the 1860s, after which many of its religious restrictions were lifted. The religious tests were definitively abolished at Oxford, Cambridge and Durham by the University Tests Act in 1871, and were absent from the start at the Victoria University and the University of Wales.
The last revolution that took hold in Victorian times was that of higher education for women. This started with Church of England teacher training colleges for women - the first, Whitelands College in Chelsea, was founded in 1841 and is now part of the University of Roehampton. Bedford College, also in London, was founded as a women’s college in 1849 and was the first university college to teach women. It was soon followed by Girton (1869) and Newnham (1871) at Cambridge and the London School of Medicine for Women (1874) in London. UCL also started classes for women in the 1860s and, in 1871, the first mixed classes offered at any university institute in Britain.
When Frances Power Cobbe presented a paper in 1862 on “university degrees for women”, she became (in her own words) “the butt of universal ridicule”. Yet it was only 16 years later, in 1878, that the University of London received a supplemental charter allowing women to degrees; the first four graduates had mainly studied privately but one had taken classes at UCL and another was a graduate of Newnham. Following this, UCL opened many of its classes (although not engineering or medicine) to women in 1878, and KCL established the “King's College, London Ladies' Department” in 1885 (later Queen Elizabeth College). Other women’s colleges also opened with Royal Holloway (1879) and Westfield (1882) in London, and Somerville (1879), Lady Margaret Hall (1879), St Hugh’s (1886) and St Hilda’s (1893) in Cambridge.
Outside of London, Oxford and Cambridge opened their examinations (although not their degrees) to women in the 1880s, while the Victoria University (1880) and the University of Wales (1893) were open to women from the start (although medical courses in the Victoria University colleges, as in London, were still restricted). Durham voted to open its degrees to women in the 1880s, but this stalled amid arguments over who would pay for a women’s college and the realisation that a supplemental charter would be needed. The supplemental charter was finally obtained in 1895 after Ella Bryant, a woman student in at the Durham College of Science in Newcastle, forced the issue by qualifying for her BSc in Physics in 1892.
From 1895, Durham became the first university in England to open its medical courses (in Newcastle) to both men and women, and entered an agreement with the London School of Medicine for Women to allow their students to take Durham degrees. In Durham itself, St Hild’s women’s teacher training college became associated with the university from 1896, with the first students taking degrees in 1898, and the Women’s Hostel (later St Mary’s College) finally opened in 1899.
While the Victorian era saw the rise of women’s education, it took the First World War to open up the London medical schools and Oxford and Cambridge did not admit women to degrees until 1920 and 1948 respectively. Queen Elizabeth’s time has seen the effective ending of single-sex education at the university level. Bedford, Royal Holloway and Westfield colleges in London went mixed in the 1960s, while at the collegiate universities there is only one men-only college (St Benet’s, Oxford, which will admit women from 2016) and only only three women-only colleges (Newnham, Murray Edwards and Lucy Cavendish, all in Cambridge) remaining.
There were great changes in higher education under Victoria, but where we now value university status, it was access to degrees that was important then - whether for colleges training their students for London examinations, or for the marginalised groups fighting to be allowed in. Yet just before the Victorian era and again towards its end, institutional status battles drove change.
Many of the battles on access that the Victorians fought are still being fought today. Women now make up the majority of the UK student population, but are underrepresented in many STEM fields. The recent Colonial Comeback cocktail scandal at Oxford has shown how far there is to go on racism. People from state schools are still grossly underrepresented in the top universities.