Third-oldest university in England debate
The title of third-oldest university in England is a topic of much debate, with prime contenders for the title usually being considered to include University College London, King's College London, Durham University and the University of London. Deciding which is truly the "oldest" depends largely on the definition of university status. The third university to be founded in England was unquestionably the medieval University of Northampton (est. 1261), but this institution survived only until 1265 and is not connected to the new University of Northampton, established as a university college in 1975 and awarded university status in 2005.
Several English higher education institutions either explicitly claim the distinction or assert a foundation that predates the conventional date for another claimant; however, conflicting definitions of university status mean it is a debate unlikely ever to be satisfactorily resolved.
Defining a university
Judging a university's foundation as occurring at the earliest point to which teaching can be traced, the establishment of predecessor institutions or the institution's foundation by Act of Parliament, Royal Charter or otherwise each produces different results, although neither Oxford nor Cambridge, the oldest two universities in England (founded 1116 and 1209 respectively) were founded by Act of Parliament or Royal Charter (Charters were bestowed on Oxford and Cambridge in 1248 and 1231, respectively). Modern dictionary definitions use multiple factors to define "University".
The only judgement in English law on what the defining characteristics of a university are comes from the decision of Mr Justice Vaisey in St David's College, Lampeter v Ministry of Education (1951) before the Chancery Division. The judgement gives six "essential qualities" that a university should possess. It:
- "must be incorporated by the highest authority, i.e. by the sovereign power"
- "must be open to receive students from any part of the world"
- "must [have] a plurality of masters"
- "must be an institution in which at least one of the higher faculties is taught" (theology; law or philosophy; medicine)
- "cannot be a university without residents either in its own buildings or near at hand"
- "must have the power to grant its own degrees" (which he calls "the most obvious and most essential quality of a university")
He ruled that St David's College passed most of these, but that based on "its limited powers [of awarding degrees] and the absence of any express intention of making it a university by the sovereign power" it did not qualify as a university.
From these principles, the ordering of when the "prime contenders" below (see discussion there for references) achieved university status is:
- Durham University: 1837 (incorporation)
- University of London: 1900 (plurality of masters; teaching higher faculties)
- University College London: 2005 (degree awarding powers)
- King's College London: 2006 (degree awarding powers)
It should be noted that both Durham (1832) and London (1836) could be considered as having been expressly made universities by the sovereign power (royal assent to an Act of Parliament in Durham's case, royal charter in London's).
Besides the question of defining a university, there is the question of what is meant by "third oldest university". The above listing assumes that it means the third institution to achieve university status, but if "third oldest university" means the third oldest institute to have eventually achieved university status (as defined above), then date of foundation is all that is being assessed and the list looks very different:
- University College London: 1826 (Deed of Settlement)
- King's College London: 1829 (Royal Charter)
- Durham University: 1832 (Act of Parliament)
- University of London: 1836 (Royal Charter)
By selectively choosing the meaning of the question and the factors used to assess university status, many different orderings can be produced.
A number of institutions have significant claims to being the third-oldest university in England. Among the contenders for the title is University College London (UCL) which, although established as a teaching institution in 1826, did not have degree-awarding powers and did not obtain a Royal Charter until 1836, and then only as a college associated with the University of London rather than as a university. King's College London (KCL) was established by Royal Charter in 1829, again as a college unable to award degrees rather than as a university. Like UCL, it was associated with the University of London from 1836. Durham University was established in 1832 by an Act of Parliament which specifically named it as a university, and received a Royal Charter in 1837, while the University of London was created with explicit degree-awarding powers by Royal Charter in 1836.
| Earliest |
|University College London||1826||1828||1836||2005||2008|
|King's College London||1829||1831||1829||2006||2008|
|Durham University||1832||1833||1837|| Unclear
|University of London||1836||1900||1836||1836||1839|
University College London
Following an abortive attempt by Henry Brougham to establish "London College" via an Act of Parliament, University College London (UCL) was established on 11 February 1826 as a joint-stock company – equivalent to a modern limited liability company – under the name of "University of London". It opened for teaching on 1 October 1828. While UCL assumed the title of "University of London", it was never granted university status.
Despite numerous petitions, and the House of Commons voting 246 – 131 in support in 1835, the institute was unsuccessful in its attempts to gain a royal charter. Opposition to the "University of London" was three-fold: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge opposed its attempts to award degrees with similar titles to theirs, the Anglican church opposed its avowedly secular nature, and the teaching hospitals opposed it on the grounds that its teachers were also its examiners – The Lancet calling it "a student trap" and saying its diplomas "would not be worth sixpence". And everyone was opposed to its assumption of the title of "university" and the idea of a (technically for-profit) company setting up to offer degrees.
While much is made of the institute's lack of degree awarding powers, there was in fact no legal bar to stop it from awarding whatever it liked, such as the "Diploma of Master of Medicine and Surgery in the University of London" (M. Med. et Chir. U. L.) advertised in the 1832 calendar. When Brougham (now Lord Chancellor) asked in the Privy Council in 1834, "Pray, Mr. Bickersteth, what is to prevent the London University granting degrees now?" he received the reply: "The universal scorn and contempt of mankind."  UCL finally received degree awarding powers on 27 September 2005, although it was included in the Education (Recognised Bodies) Order 1997 as one of the "Schools, Colleges and Institutes of the University of London permitted by the University to award University of London degrees".
In 1836 the institution was finally awarded a Royal Charter, but as a college under the name "University College, London". Rather than receiving its own degree awarding powers, it was associated with the new University of London, with degrees being examined and conferred by the university. The charter also removed the possibility of paying dividends to the proprietors (none were ever paid), although it left them still in ownership of the college. In November 1838, the first UCL students matriculated in the new University of London and the first London degrees were awarded in 1839. The first UCL degrees were awarded in summer 2008.
UCL's status as a college of the University of London and not (formally) a university in its own right, and its lack (until 2005) of degree awarding powers, count against it being considered the third oldest university in England, but it has a very strong claim to being the third oldest higher education institute, with only its lack of a royal charter before 1836 arguably placing it behind King's College.
King's College London
King's College London was established by Royal Charter on 14 August 1829 as a reaction to UCL with the aim of providing an Anglican education (the King's College London School of Medicine has a much longer history, which would later lead to opposition to using "Est 1829" in the college logo). It was able to receive its charter quickly in part because it was not seeking to become a university, and in part because of its outlook on religion being an essential part of education – both in sharp contrast to its rival. The term "university" does not appear in the charter. The existence of King's also gave the establishment another excuse to deny UCL university status: it would mean doing the same for King's, creating two universities for one city. This eventually led to the compromise of forming the University of London to examine students from both colleges.
The college opened its doors to students in 1831. Students at King's either left for degrees at Oxford and Cambridge, gained medical qualifications through the Royal Colleges, or (from 1834) took the Associate of King's College (first awarded 1835); the college did not award degrees of its own.
Following the establishment of the University of London in 1836, King's became an associated college of that university, allowing its students to sit examinations for London degrees. However, students were still encouraged to take the AKC rather than the London degree – which was also open to "godless" UCL students.
The same objections raised to UCL's claim can be made against King's. It lacks de jure status as a university, and only gained degree awarding powers in July 2006, awarding its first degrees in summer 2008.
Officially, King's College has only claimed to be "the fourth oldest [university] in England" in 2009 press releases and elsewhere on the King's College website, accepting the prior claim of University College London, which is described as "the third oldest university institution [in England]" in an official King's College podcast by Arthur Burns, Professor of Modern History, on the King's College website.
Following the suppression of Durham College, Oxford at the Reformation, attempts to found a university at Durham took place during the reigns of Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell. Neither of these were successful. Despite early Durham University calendars drawing a connection between the suppressed college and the new university, and the claim by Charles Thorp, Archdeacon of Durham and first Warden of the University, that Durham University was the legitimate successor to the college, there is no legal link between the pre-Reformation Durham College and the current Durham University.
The current institution had its beginnings in an act of Chapter on 28 September 1831, which resolved to accept "A plan of an academic institution, to be called Durham College, in connexion with the Dean and Chapter". By December of that year, the "college" was being advertised as a "university", with the prospectus appearing in London newspapers. On 4 July 1832, an Act of Parliament was passed, specifically empowering the "Establishment of a University" by the Dean and Chapter. Students were admitted to degree programmes from 28 October 1833, with the first calendar (from autumn 1833) advertising the institution as "University of Durham founded by Act of Chapter with the Consent of the Bishop of Durham 28 September 1831. Constituted a University by Act of Parliament 2nd and 3rd William IV., Sess. 1831-2."
In March 1834, Thorp received a letter checking whether the proceedings regarding the university in Chapter were in writing under their common seal and with the Bishop's signature. Possibly as a result of this, an Act of Chapter on 4 April 1834 agreed "that the College established by Act of Chapter, 28th September 1831, be constituted a University". This act, later to be cited in the Royal Charter, appears to have removed any legal doubt over the university's status, and it is referred to as "the University of Durham" in the Municipal Corporations Act 1835.
However, the question of degree awarding powers remained. During the second reading of the bill which became the Act in the House of Lords, William van Mildert, the Bishop of Durham, had said that the bill would not confer degree awarding powers, but that a royal charter would be required. This charter was not conferred until 1 June 1837, with the first students graduated a few days later on 8 June. Between the passing of the Act and the granting of the charter there were two public assertions that the title of "university" implied degree awarding powers – it was not possible for a university to exist that could not grant degrees, so if an institute was granted the title it would automatically gain the powers. Neither of these public statements discussed Durham explicitly, in fact both were concerned with the "University of London" (the institution that was to become UCL).
The first was from William Tooke, who said while proposing a motion in the Commons in favour of granting a charter to the University of London, "It is not generally known, that no university whatever is entitled to confer degrees, by grant of any Charter whatever, the claim so to do being considered as incident to the name and title of University". The second came from the other side of the University of London debate, with Charles Wetherell, representing the University of Oxford, arguing in a published speech before the Privy Council that a charter that limited the University of London to only granting certain degrees would not be legally enforceable. In support of this, he quoted two principles laid down by Charles Yorke: that "granting degrees flows from the Crown;" and that if "a University be erected, the power of granting degrees is incidental to the grant."
Thorp wrote to the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne in February 1836 noting that degree awarding powers might be inherent in being a university, but that it would be desirable to have either a charter or a legal declaration that one was unnecessary. The university also sought Wetherell's counsel on the matter of the charter in March, and were advised to avoid mention of degree awarding powers and let them be carried by the title of university.
For Durham, the point of the debate is about whether it achieved university status in 1832 by Act of Parliament, or not until 1837, when it received its Royal Charter. Not all universities in the United Kingdom possess charters, with the "post-92" institutions explicitly deriving their university status from the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, and Newcastle University from the Universities of Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne Act 1963. Even more relevant to Durham's case are the examples of Oxford and Cambridge, both of which operated for many years without a charter following their respective foundations – indeed, by date of charter Cambridge is the senior – while neither was formally incorporated until 1571.
The significance, then, of Durham's charter is whether the University acquired degree-awarding powers from the charter or from the Act. With this in mind, it is worth noting that the charter does not contain any grant of degree awarding powers. The only explicit mention of degree awarding powers in Durham's foundational documents is in the fundamental statute passed by the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral on 20 July 1835, which states "that the degrees in the various faculties shall be conferred by the Warden in Convocation". The royal charter confirms that the Dean and Chapter had been granted authority to make this statute by the 1832 Act, stating that it was made "by virtue, and in pursuance of the trusts and powers in the said Act of Parliament, and of every other power enabling them in that behalf".
While deriving degree awarding powers from statutes made under an Act of Parliament rather than from royal charter is unusual, it is not unique. The statutes made by the Commissioners appointed under the University of London Act (1898), repealed all provisions of that university's royal charter except for its incorporation – including, therefore, the provisions granting degree awarding powers. After these statutes entered force in 1900, London's degree awarding powers derived from them rather than from its royal charter.
University of London
The University of London was established and chartered in 1836 as a degree awarding body. It was, however, only incorporated "during Our Royal Will and Pleasure" - words meaning that the charter expired on the death of William IV. It was permanently incorporated by a second Royal Charter on 5 December 1837. This date is sometimes given in Victorian sources as the founding of the University, and is the date used as the date of creation in the supplemental charter of 1850 and the charters of 1858 and 1863.
This date of December 1837 postdates the Royal Charters of King's, UCL and Durham; and the claimed foundation date of 1836 postdates those claimed by the other three institutions. Whether the University of London, as then constituted, was truly a university has also been questioned. As founded in 1836/7, it was "an examining board appointed by the government", with no teaching and degree awarding powers limited to six named degrees. As noted above, some authorities believed this limitation on degree powers as unenforceable legally, but London chose to apply for (and received) further charters when it wished to expand its degree-awarding powers, until these were removed from its charter and into the university's statutes in 1900.
However, it was the first of these objections – the lack of teaching in the university – that led to the most criticism. Henry Wace, Principle of KCL told a Royal Commission in 1888 that he "had two … objections to the title of the University of London: one, that it is not a University, and the other that it is not of London". In a similar vein, Karl Pearson, a professor at UCL, said that "[t]o term the body which examines at Burlington House a University is a perversion of language, to which no charter or Act of Parliament can give a real sanction". Modern historians have taken a similar line, describing the University of London of that era as "a Government department, in the form of a board of examiners with power to matriculate students and award degrees … it had the trappings of a university, but not its most obvious function – it did not teach," and as "what would today be called a quango". The problems thrown up by the lack of teaching in the university led eventually to its reconstitution as a federal teaching and research institution in 1900.
Many present day institutions incorporate earlier foundations, such as theological colleges or medical schools, or are able to trace their origins to earlier teaching operations, and thus may be considered to have a longer heritage than those listed above.
The medical school of Queen Mary, University of London, Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, incorporates St. Bartholomew's Hospital, which began unofficial medical teaching in 1123, the earliest date of known organised medical teaching in the United Kingdom. The school also comprises the first official medical school in England (the London Hospital Medical College, founded 1785); however that school was not a university in its own right and only taught for the examinations of the Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Surgeons and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London.
Wye College was founded in 1447 by John Kemp, the Archbishop of York, as a college for the training of priests. It merged with Imperial College London in 2000 and was closed in 2009. Similarly, Ushaw College of Durham University is a Roman Catholic seminary established in 1568 in Douai in northern France, which relocated to Ushaw Moor, four miles west of Durham in 1808 but did not become part of the University (as a Licensed Hall) until 1968. Durham University already has a much stronger claim to be the third-oldest university through its creation by Act of Parliament in 1832. Heythrop College, the specialist philosophy and theology constituent college of the University of London, was founded in 1614 in Belgium, though did not move to London (after several other locations) until 1970 and became part of the University in 1971.
Of the redbrick universities, the University of Birmingham has traced formal medical lectures to 1767 through the Birmingham Workhouse Infirmary, a precursor to Birmingham Medical School which was founded in 1825 and received a Royal Charter as Queen's College, Birmingham in 1843. The University of Manchester (established by a merger of the Victoria University (founded 1851) and UMIST (founded 1824) can trace its earliest teaching to an 1814 anatomy school founded by Joseph Jordan. The same can be said for other redbrick institutions such as the University of Liverpool which developed from the Liverpool Royal Institution (a society established 1814 "for promoting the increase and diffusion of Literature, Science and the Arts", Royal Charter 1821). A number of universities also claim heritage from earlier Mechanics' Institutes, including Liverpool John Moores University, descended from a Mechanics' Institute founded in 1823; Birkbeck, University of London, founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics Institute and Leeds Metropolitan University from the 1824-founded Leeds Mechanics Institute.
The four Inns of Court in London, together with the associated Inns of Chancery, formed a recognised centre of legal and intellectual education, and – although never a university in any technical sense – were sometimes collectively described in the early modern period as England's "third university". Most notably, this claim was made in Sir George Buck's tract, The Third Universitie of England: Or a Treatise of the Foundations of all the Colledges, Auncient Schooles of Priviledge, and of Houses of Learning, and Liberall Arts, within and about the Most Famous Cittie of London, published in 1615 as an appendix to John Stow's Annales.
Gresham College, a higher education institute founded in London in 1597 was the first home of the Royal Society (who received their royal charter in 1662). The college was also mentioned in Buck's Third Universitie of England alongside the Inns of Court.
- List of UK universities by date of foundation
- List of oldest universities in continuous operation
- University of Wales, Lampeter, the third-oldest higher education institute in England and Wales
- Ancient university
- Medieval university
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