This guest blog has been kindly written for us by Dr Matthew Andrews, University Secretary and Registrar at the University of Gloucestershire and author of ‘Universities in the Age of Reform, 1800-1870: Durham, London and King’s College’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).


University development has tended to happen in waves.  The so-called ‘post-92’ universities were created by the transformation of the polytechnics by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. A similar government decision in 1963, following the recommendations of the Robbins Report, converted the ten Colleges of Advanced Technology into universities.  Early in the nineteenth century, however, there was an even smaller but more important and more interesting wave of new institutions. More important because this was the wave that broke the centuries-long duopoly of higher education in England by Oxford and Cambridge, and more interesting because far from being the creation of government the first new institutions of the nineteenth century were individual foundations motivated by a desire to bring new forms of higher education to a different public.

During the Age of Reform, new and innovative ideas about the role and purpose of a university were moving at an unprecedented pace. The case was made not only that Oxford and Cambridge were religiously exclusive, exorbitantly expensive, and delivered an outmoded curriculum, but that universities needed to serve more contemporary, vocational, and scientific interests.

The foundations which arose out of this debate, within a five-year period from 1828 to 1833, were London University (later University College, London), King’s College, London, and Durham University. Each of these institutions represented a radical departure from the status quo. And their foundations meant that, for the first time, there was a sustained English higher education sector beyond the ancient establishments at Oxford and Cambridge.

The first of this wave was London University. On 9 February 1825, The Times carried an open letter from Thomas Campbell to Lord Brougham. Campbell called for a university in London to open higher education to those excluded from the ancient universities, to teach the subjects they neglected, and to offer a higher education at a much lower cost. It should be non-residential, in part to help avoid the question of religious tests and affiliation. This was Campbell’s first formal move, but he had been formulating his plan for a university since a visit in 1820 to the recently founded University of Bonn. Though Campbell was the prime mover in the project, it was Brougham who did much of the organising and who secured the co-operation of Dissenters who were considering setting up a university of their own.

London University was founded on 11 February 1826 by the signing of a Deed of Settlement, which protected the rights of investors but left uncertainty about its status. Could a university simply be founded as a joint stock company? Its detractors and critics thought not – and at first its request for a charter to grant it legitimacy was refused. So, could it really be said to be founded at all?

London University opened to students in 1828 but even before then a counter-movement from within the Established Church was underway. On 26 December 1827, The Standard reported ‘a rumour … to make application to the legislature for the endowment of a college in the metropolis … under the control, and dedicated to the purposes of, the Established Church’. The Duke of Wellington chaired the inaugural meeting to set about the foundation of this metropolitan college on 21 June 1828, ably supported by no fewer than three archbishops and seven bishops.

This institution was to become King’s College, London, and it too was to be unlike the ancient universities. It was established to offer practical instruction in the Sciences as well as the Arts, no religious tests were to be imposed on students and, from the start, the College had no intention of conferring degrees. Unlike London University, however, King’s College was not attempting to use university title and so, amongst other things, this helped the swift sealing of its Charter in 1829.

Durham University adopted a third approach: for it was not to be a joint stock company but neither (at first) did it attempt to secure its identity through a charter. From the earliest mention of the idea in August 1831 this new northern institution was to be a university with degree-awarding powers. Like the two London institutions it was to teach modern and vocational subjects including Engineering and Medicine, it would offer a cheaper education, and it established a professoriate based on the Scottish model, but unlike them it was to be collegiate and offer a traditional Bachelor of Arts degree. It would also impose a religious test on the same basis as Cambridge. Because of the need to secure the Chapter’s endowments for the purposes of the University, an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1832 which was used formally to establish the University. On this basis the first students were admitted in 1833.

At this point three institutions existed: the so-called London University which was widely thought to be illegitimate, the formally recognised King’s College which made no claim to be a university, and Durham University which had been founded based on the authority of an Act of Parliament.

Prolonged political complexities meant the status of the London institutions was not settled until 1836 with the creation of the federal University of London, and the consequent re-naming of London University to become University College, London. An attempt was made to bring Durham into this structure too, but this was fought off. Durham was granted a Charter in 1837 and the first 14 BA degrees were conferred under the Charter’s authority in June that year. The first students for the London BA, from King’s College and University College, would not graduate until 1839.

This series of events created a landscape for higher education that remained in place until 1851 when Owens College opened in Manchester. It is a brief and neglected period but one which gave us the birth of the sector we know today. It deserves to be better known.

Dr Matthew Andrews, ‘Universities in the Age of Reform, 1800-1870: Durham, London and King’s College’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)