The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Education

England and Wales have at present fifteen universities. Scotland has four, Northern Ireland has one. These twenty bodies are diverse in their origin and traditions, status and methods, but three groups can be distinguished at once. In order of their origin they consist of, first,Oxford and Cambridge; secondly the Scottish universities; and thirdly the English civic universities.

Oxford, the seat of an ancient university, is one of the most interesting and famous towns in Europe. The beautiful architecture of its spires and towers as seen from a distance is renowned, not less the noble architecture of its colleges.

The first mention of its name (the ‘ford for oxen’ over theThames) occurs in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle of 912. The University is first mentioned in the 12th century, though there are picturesque legends that it was founded by the mythical British king Memphric or, at least, by Alfred the Great; it may have developed from monastic schools or perhaps owed its origin indirectly to the expulsion of for­eign students fromParis. The early students (c. 1000—1500 in number) who flocked to hear the lectures at Oxford found accommodation in the numerous ‘Halls’ (hostels).

Oxford quickly became one of the intellectual centres of Europe.

Cambridge, on the Camor Granta, is famous as the seat of one of the great English universities. It lies on the south margin of the Fen Country, and owns its attraction mainly to its series of stately colleges admirably set off by groups and avenues of fine trees.

The castle hill on the north side of the town may rep­resent a British earthwork, and Roman remains indicate a Roman settlement. Early names of the rivers were Rhee and the more frequent Granta (now usually applied to the two branches of the river aboveCambridge), which gave the forms “Grantabridge” and (later)Cambridge. The pre­sent name of the riverCamwas derived from the town, not the other way about. The situation ofCambridgemust always have been important, but the significance of town and castle was speedily eclipsed by that of the University. As a fact it probably grew up around the religious establishments of the early 12th century.

OxfordandCambridgeare almost identical, more like two branches of the same university than like separate un­connected institutions — which they in fact are. In the first place they both trace their long history back to the same period.

By the end of the thirteenth century both universities had already colleges in being — for example Balliol atOxford, and Peterhouse atCambridge.

Their history from that time has been very similar. Both retained the system of residential colleges when other me­dieval universities abandoned it. Each college was, and still is, run by a Master and a body of Fellows. They main­tain its buildings, repair, and add to or demolish them; they arrange about the food and the college servants; and when the Master dies or retires, it is generally the Fellows who elect a new one.

BothOxfordandCambridgehave been historically as­sociated with the state religion, becoming at the Reforma­tion a preserve of the Church of England, Until 1854 atOxfordand 1856 atCambridgeonly members of the Church of England could enter the University.

A final characteristic mark ofOxfordandCambridgehas been their association in modern times with the higher ranks of society. They have always been universities for gentlemen; progressively during the eighteenth and nine­teenth centuries they tended to become universities exclu­sively for gentlemen, with the poor scholar reduced almost to vanishing point.

But gentlemen are not necessarily especially clever; they may be quite stupid. Even when they were intellec­tually brilliant, men atOxfordandCambridgewere often not thinking of an academic career, but had instead ambi­tions at the Bar, or in politics. These universities had therefore to deal with a large number of muscular and high- spirited young men who cared much more about hunting and shooting, or cricket and football, or sports cars and girls, than they did about learning.

The Scottish universities were all founded in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Their characteristic student was a minister’s or a small farmer’s son, living in lodgings off a bag of oat-meal. In this way of life the Scottish univer­sities resembled the great European universities such asParisorBologna. Students were provided, by means of lectures and libraries, with the opportunity to acquire a knowledge of the classics, mathematics, law, medicine or theology or whatever it might be, and apart from that they were left alone. There was not the elaborate system of tutor­ing, and supervision moral and mental, which there was atOxfordandCambridge.

The English civic universities are all comparatively new formations. UniversityCollege(LondonUniversity) was founded in 1827 inorder to provide a university education for Non-conformists2 who until the eighteen-fifties were not admitted toOxford orCambridge. The other provincial universities were started for people who were debarred fromOxford orCambridge, not by religion, but by money or lack of it.

In the year 1955—56 only nine per cent of the British students admitted atCambridgeand only thirteen per cent atOxfordwere of working-class origin. At provincial universities the figures are not much better — probably around 18—20 per cent.

Admissions procedures are in the hands of middle- class individuals who find it difficult not to regard the work­ing-class boy as a “bit of a rough diamond’’. Clothes, accent, confidence at interview if there is one, occupation of parents, are all features which give rise to bias either con­scious or unconscious.

OxfordandCambridgecolleges cultivate connections with public schools in many cases. In all these conditions, even if the attempt to be “fair” is made, the selection proce­dure is subject to the dictatorship of the middle class, who prefer mirror images of themselves and their families.

The class aspect of higher education shows itself in many other ways. Before many reach the stage of applying to a uni­versity, their future is predetermined by the economic need to get out and eafn and so on. Many thousands will theil turn to getting qualifications from Colleges of Advanced Technology,TechnicalColleges,TrainingCollegesand other institutions.

In existing conditions, this vast sphere of higher, non­university, education is tremendously important as a means of correcting the rigidity of the university system.

From Life in Britain by J. D. Scott; Oxford and Cambridge. Blue Guide; Comment, March 21, 1964

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