Third-oldest university in England debate

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Oxford, the oldest university in England (All Souls College pictured)

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;[1][2][3][4] however, conflicting definitions of university status mean it is a debate unlikely ever to be satisfactorily resolved.

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 (although Charters were bestowed on Oxford and Cambridge in 1248 and 1231, respectively).[5]

Prime contenders[edit]

A number of institutions each have significant claims to being the third-oldest university in England. Among the contenders for the title is University College London, 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 within the federal University of London. In 1829, King's College London was established, similarly unable to award degrees but with a Royal Charter, although that charter did not contain the word, "university". Durham University was established in 1832 by an Act of Parliament which specifically named it as a university, and it received a Royal Charter in 1837, while the federal University of London was created with degree-awarding powers by Royal Charter in 1836.

Institution Foundation Earliest
University College London 1826 1826 1836 2005
King's College London 1829 1831 1829 2003
Durham University 1832 1832 1837 1837
University of London 1836 None 1836 1836

University College London[edit]

University College London (UCL) was established in 1826 as "London University", but was unsuccessful in obtaining a Royal Charter. Part of the opposition was due to its avowedly secular nature but also because it was claiming the title "university".[6] Until 1836 the institution had no legal recognition as an educational institution and was unable to confer degrees. In 1836 it was awarded a Royal Charter, but as a college of a collegiate university, the new University of London, with degrees being conferred by the university.

As well as being a college of the University of London and not a university in its own right, UCL's lack of formal legally recognised status before 1836 is often cited as a reason why it does not qualify as the oldest institution.

King's College London[edit]

King's College London was established in 1829 as a reaction to UCL (although its medical school has a much longer history, which would later lead to opposition to using "Est 1829" in the college logo), with the aim to provide Anglican education. It received its Royal Charter that year; however this was in part because it was not seeking to become a university, unlike its rival.[6] The term "university" does not appear in the charter.[7] The college opened its doors to students in 1831. Students at King's either sat exams for degrees of Oxford and Cambridge, for professional qualifications or (from 1834) for the Associate of King's College; the college did not award degrees of its own.[8] Following the establishment of the University of London in 1836, King's became a college of the university.

Like UCL, King's lacks de jure status as a university. Although its claim is based on the Royal Charter of 1829 it does not appear to have been created as a university.

Officially, King's College has claimed to be only "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.[9][10]

Durham University[edit]

Several attempts to found a university at Durham took place, notably under the reigns of Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell. However, The University of Durham was established by Act of Parliament in 1832 specifically with the title 'University'.[11] Students were admitted onto degree programmes on that basis. However its Royal Charter was not conferred until 1 June 1837 and the first students graduated a few days later.[12] Before the granting of the Charter there was some internal debate over whether or not the Act of Parliament gave the University the power to award degrees, though at that stage no students had completed their studies. During the second reading of the bill which became the Act, the Bishop of Durham had said that the bill would not confer degree awarding powers.[13] As a precaution, explicit degree conferring powers were sought when the Charter was conferred.

For Durham the point of the debate is about whether it achieved university status in 1832 by Act of Parliament, or did 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. The significance of Durham's charter is whether the University acquired degree-awarding powers from the charter or from the Act.

University of London[edit]

The University of London was established and chartered in 1836 as a degree awarding body.

Of all the main claimants, the University of London's birth is the least ambiguous, being clearly datable to 1836. However this postdates the dates claimed by the other three institutions.

Lesser claims[edit]

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.

Constituent institutions[edit]

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.

Predecessor institutions[edit]

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.[14] 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.[15] The same can be said for other redbrick institutions such as the University of Liverpool which developed from the Liverpool Royal Institution (established 1814, Royal Charter of 1821, with specific research and teaching remits).[citation needed] 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.

Figurative claim[edit]

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".[16] 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Being old is good for a university, so when Durham advertised itself this week as 'England's third oldest university', University College, London, immediately sought to put the record straight." "Battle of the oldies". The Times Higher Education Supplement. August 28, 1998. 
  2. ^ "...the question still remains who came third?" "The third oldest university in England... or is it?". The Northern Echo. April 11, 2007. 
  3. ^ "The University of London... was granted its first charter in 1836 and is the third-oldest university in England." "Split over power shake-up". The Times Higher Education Supplement. May 4, 2007. 
  4. ^ "Being part of a university is also part of the attraction of Durham Business School. Anne-Marie Nevin, its development officer, says: "We're part of the third-oldest university in England, after Oxford and Cambridge." "Why it's a real pleasure to study up North". The Times. October 1, 2001. 
  5. ^ Anderson, Ross. "Cambridge University – The Unauthorised History". University of Cambridge. 
  6. ^ a b Cobb Hearnshaw, F.J. (1929). The Centenary History of King's College London. London: G.G. Harrap & Company. pp. 67–68. 
  7. ^ Cobb Hearnshaw, F.J. (1929). The Centenary History of King's College London. London: G.G. Harrap & Company. pp. 70–74. 
  8. ^ "FAQs 4. Did all students sit University of London examinations?". 175 years King's College: In the beginning... King's College London. Retrieved 2006-11-10. 
  9. ^ "King's College press release". 2009-12-23. Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  10. ^ "King's College historical podcast". Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  11. ^ Private Acts, 2&3 Gul.IV c.19 (1832)
  12. ^ "The University: The Founding of the University". The University. Durham University. Archived from the original on 2006-06-17. Retrieved 2006-11-10. 
  13. ^ Hansard, House of Lords, 22 May 1832, col. 1215: "...[N]or ought the privilege of conferring degrees, if hereafter committed to the University by charter, to be thrown open indiscriminately to non-conformists of every description, in common with members of the Established Church." (Emphasis added.) Hansard website
  14. ^ Finch, Sir Ernest (1957). "The influence of the Hunters on medical education". Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 20: 205–48. : Hunterian Oration 1957.
  15. ^ "Joseph Jordan red plaque in Manchester". Open Plaques. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  16. ^ See also Baker, J.H. (2011). "The third university 1450-1550: law school or finishing school?". In Archer, Jayne Elisabeth; Goldring, Elizabeth; Knight, Sarah. The Intellectual and Cultural World of the Early Modern Inns of Court. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 8–24. ISBN 9780719082368.