The ancient universities are British and Irish medieval universities and early modern universities founded before the year 1600. Four of these are located in Scotland, two in England, and one in Ireland. The ancient universities in Britain and Ireland are amongst the oldest extant universities in the world.
The surviving ancient universities in England, Scotland and Ireland are, in order of formation:
|Year||Name||Nation of Founding||Location||Notes|
|1096||University of Oxford||Kingdom of England||Oxford, England||"There is no clear date of foundation, but teaching existed at Oxford in some form in 1096 and developed rapidly from 1167, when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris." Teaching suspended in 1209 (due to town execution of two scholars) and 1355 (due to the St. Scholastica riot).|
|1209||University of Cambridge||Kingdom of England||Cambridge, England||Founded by scholars leaving Oxford after a dispute caused by the execution of two scholars in 1209.|
|1413||University of St Andrews||Kingdom of Scotland||St Andrews, Scotland||Founded by a Papal Bull building on earlier bodies established between 1410 and 1413|
|1451||University of Glasgow||Kingdom of Scotland||Glasgow, Scotland||Founded by a Papal Bull|
|1495||University of Aberdeen||Kingdom of Scotland||Aberdeen, Scotland||King's College was founded in 1495 by Papal Bull and Marischal College in 1593; they merged in 1860|
|1582||University of Edinburgh||Kingdom of Scotland||Edinburgh, Scotland||Established by a Royal Charter granted by James VI|
|1592||University of Dublin||Kingdom of Ireland||Dublin, Ireland||Founded by Charter of Queen Elizabeth I; Trinity College is the only constituent college of the university|
These universities are often governed in a quite different fashion to more recent foundations. The ancient universities of Scotland also share several distinctive features and are governed by arrangements laid down by the Universities (Scotland) Acts. In addition to these universities, some now-defunct institutions were founded during this period, including the University of Northampton (1261–1265), the university or college at Stamford, Lincolnshire (1331?–1335), the university or college at Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire (1592–1605), and the college in Durham (1657–1660) founded under Oliver Cromwell, for which a charter as a university was drawn up under Richard Cromwell but never sealed.
Undergraduate Master of Arts degree
The ancient universities are distinctive in awarding the Magister Artium/Master of Arts (MA) as an undergraduate academic degree. This is commonly known as the Oxbridge MA, Trinity MA (Dublin), or the Scottish MA.
The ancient universities in Scotland confer the MA degree at graduation with honours and a final mark; in contrast, the ancient universities in England and Ireland award the MA purely after a period of good standing following graduation as Bachelor of Arts, usually around three years.
Because they award the MA as an undergraduate Arts degree, the ancient universities award differing titles for their postgraduate master's degrees in the Arts and Humanities, such as the taught Master of Letters ("MLitt (T)"). Some confusion can arise as to whether such degrees are taught degrees or the most established (and advanced) two-year research degrees, although this is often specified.
While both universities received grants of liberties and privileges by royal charter, the charters granted to Cambridge in 1231 and to Oxford in 1248 being the earliest recorded on the Privy Councils list of chartered bodies, neither university was created or incorporated by royal charter. After existing for the first few centuries of their existence as common law corporations, they were formally incorporated by the Oxford and Cambridge Act 1571, under Elizabeth I. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1859 repealed the parts of the 1571 act that required the mayor, aldermen, citizens or municipal officer of the City of Oxford to take any oath for the conservation of the liberties and privileges of the University of Oxford.
In the 19th century a series of acts and commissions reduced the powers of the universities to make their own statutes. A Royal Commission in 1850 looked into both universities and proposed major reforms to their constitutions. These were enacted by the Oxford University Act 1854 and the Cambridge University Act 1856. The Universities Tests Act 1871 removed almost all religious tests from both universities (and from Durham University). The Oxford and Cambridge Universities Act 1877 set up commissioners to look into further reform of the statutes of both universities and of their constituent colleges. Further Royal Commissions into both universities were established in 1919, resulting in the Oxford and Cambridge Universities Act 1923, setting up a commission to again make statutes and regulations for the universities and their colleges. This has resulted in there being two kind of statutes at these universities – those made by the universities themselves, which may be changed by them, and the "Queen-in-Council" statutes made under the 1923 act or the Education Reform Act 1988 that can only be changed with permission from the Privy Council.
Universities (Scotland) Acts
As mentioned above, the Universities (Scotland) Acts created a distinctive system of governance for the ancient universities in Scotland, the process beginning with the 1858 Act and ending with the 1966 Act. Despite not being founded until after the first in these series of Acts, the University of Dundee shares all the features contained therein.
The chief executive and chief academic is the University Principal who also holds the title of Vice-Chancellor as an honorific. The Chancellor is a titular non-resident head to each university and is elected for life by the respective General Council, although in actuality a good number of Chancellors resign before the end of their 'term of office'.
Following the creation of the ancient universities, no more universities were created in Britain and Ireland until the 19th century, when a number of universities and colleges were established. Which of these 19th-century institutions should be considered the earliest post-ancient university is a matter of debate. The main university-level foundations up to the mid 19th century were:
- St David's College, Lampeter by the Bishop of St David's in 1822 (royal charter 1828),
- University College London as a joint stock company in 1826 under the name "London University" (royal charter as University College, London 1836)
- King's College London by royal charter in 1829
- Durham University by act of parliament in 1832 (royal charter 1837)
- University of London by royal charter in 1836
- Queen's College Belfast (now, Queen's University Belfast), Queen's College Cork (now University College Cork) and Queen's College Galway (now NUI Galway) by royal charters in 1845
- Bedford College, London founded by Elizabeth Jesser Reid in 1849 and the first institution of higher learning for women in the British Isles; now part of Royal Holloway, University of London
- Queen's University of Ireland by royal charter in 1850, with the above Queen's Colleges as constituent institutions
- Catholic University of Ireland in 1851 (royal charter as University College Dublin 1908)
- Owens College Manchester in 1851, now the University of Manchester (via the Victoria University of Manchester)
Only Durham, London and the Queen's University of Ireland were recognised as universities at the time of their foundation, granting their first degrees in 1837, 1839 and 1851 respectively. Durham was a collegiate university, London was an examining board, and the Queen's University was a federal university. The other institutions, while teaching at university level, were colleges, some becoming universities later. In addition, many other universities trace their roots to institutions founded in this period, including the University of Strathclyde to the Andersonian Institute (1796), Heriot-Watt University to the School of Arts of Edinburgh (1821), Birkbeck, University of London to the London Mechanics' Institute (1823), and the University of Manchester (via UMIST) to the Manchester Mechanics Institute (1824). Many medical schools also date from the 18th century or earlier, including St Thomas's Hospital Medical School (now part of King's College London) between 1693 and 1709, St George's, University of London in 1733, Middlesex Hospital Medical School (now part of University College London) in 1746, London Hospital Medical College (now part of Queen Mary, University of London) in 1786.
The redbrick universities were established as university colleges in the latter half of the 19th century and mostly became universities in the early 20th century. The Royal University of Ireland (1881, as the successor of the Queen's University of Ireland), the Victoria University (1881), the University of Wales (1893) were the only other universities established in the 1800s, all as federal or examining universities. The first unitary university in the British Isles outside of Scotland was the University of Birmingham (1900).
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