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A university constituency is a constituency, used in elections to a legislature, that represents a university rather than a geographical area. University constituencies may involve plural voting, in which eligible voters are permitted to vote in both a university constituency and a geographical constituency, or alternatively they may only be entitled to vote in one.
University constituencies originated in Scotland, where the representatives of the ancient universities of Scotland sat in the unicameral Estates of Parliament. When James VI inherited the English throne in 1603, the system was adopted by the Parliament of England. The system was continued in the Parliament of Great Britain (from 1707 to 1800) and the United Kingdom Parliament, until 1950. It was also used in the Parliament of Ireland, in the Kingdom of Ireland, from 1613 to 1800, and in the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1936.
University constituencies have also existed in Japan and in some countries of the British Empire such as India. Today in the Republic of Ireland there are two university constituencies in Seanad Éireann, the Irish senate.
|King's College (Aberdeen)||Scotland||?–1707||?|
|Marischal College (Aberdeen)||Scotland||?–1707||?|
|St Andrews||Scotland||?–1707||?|
|Cambridge||England, Great Britain, United Kingdom||1603–1950||2|
|Oxford||England, Great Britain, United Kingdom||1603–1950||2|
|Dublin||United Kingdom||1801–1922||1 (1801–32)
|Edinburgh and St Andrews||United Kingdom||1868–1918||1 between|
|Glasgow and Aberdeen||United Kingdom||1868–1918||1 between|
|Combined English Universities||United Kingdom||1918–1950||2 between|
|Combined Scottish Universities||United Kingdom||1918–1950||3 between|
|National University of Ireland||United Kingdom||1918–1922||1|
|Queen's University of Belfast||United Kingdom||1918–1950||1|
|University of Wales||United Kingdom||1918–1950||1|
|National University of Ireland||Southern Ireland||1921–1922||4|
|Queen's University of Belfast||Northern Ireland||1921–1969||4|
|National University of Ireland||Dáil Éireann||1922–1937||3|
|National University of Ireland||Seanad Éireann||1938–present||3|
King James VI of Scotland, on ascending the English throne, brought to the English Parliament a practice which had been used in the Scottish Parliament of allowing the universities to elect members. The King believed that the universities were often affected by the decisions of Parliament and ought therefore to have representation in it. After the Union the Scottish universities lost their representatives in the new Parliament of Great Britain at Westminster.
The University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford were therefore given two seats each from 1603. The voters were the graduates of the university, whether they were resident or not, who had the vote for their University in addition to any other vote that they might have. After the Act of Union 1800 with Ireland, the University of Dublin (Trinity College), which had elected two MPs to the Parliament of Ireland since 1613, was allowed one member from 1801 and two from 1832.
The University of London was enfranchised with one member in 1868, along with the four ancient Scottish universities – Glasgow and Aberdeen electing one member, and St. Andrews and Edinburgh electing another. The list of universities represented in Parliament was further enlarged in 1918, including the Queen's University of Belfast and the National University of Ireland. These both, as well the University of Dublin, also received four seats in the devolved Stormont Parliament and the Southern Ireland Parliament respectively that were established in 1920 and elected in 1921. Also in 1918, the Scottish universities switched to all electing three members jointly (see Combined Scottish Universities).
In 1918, all the other English universities (i.e. except for Cambridge, Oxford and London) were enfranchised with two seats, as Combined English Universities. They were Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Reading (from August 1928), and Sheffield.
The University of Wales also received one seat in 1918.
1918 also saw the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote for university constituencies.
The Labour government in 1930 attempted to abolish the university constituencies but was defeated in the House of Commons. Although the members for the university Constituencies were usually Conservatives, in the later years, Independent candidates began to win many of the seats. In 1948, the Labour government abolished the university constituencies, with effect from the dissolution of Parliament in 1950, along with all other examples of plural voting.
The Members for the university constituencies include many notable statesmen: William Pitt the Younger and Lord Palmerston both served as MPs for Cambridge University, and Robert Peel and William Ewart Gladstone each served as MP for Oxford University for portions of their careers. In his last years Ramsay MacDonald was MP for Combined Scottish Universities after losing his seat in the 1935 general election. Many criticised this as he had previously sought to abolish the seats when Labour Prime Minister, and many now felt the seats were being used to provide a failed politician with a seat he could not find elsewhere.
The humorist and law reform activist A. P. Herbert sat as an Independent member for Oxford University from 1935 to 1950. He described the counting of the votes at the 1935 election in a chapter entitled 'P.R.': Or, Standing for Oxford in his 1936 book Mild and Bitter.
The Queen's University, Belfast survived in the Northern Ireland Parliament until it was abolished in 1968 (with effect from the dissolution of Parliament in 1969) by the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1968 (1968 c. 20, Act of the Stormont Parliament). This was part of a series of measures by the then Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O'Neill to reform elements of the election franchise and deal with many long-standing civil-rights grievances.
There are two university constituencies in Seanad Éireann, with graduates of the University of Dublin and National University of Ireland entitled to elect three Senators each. Irish or British citizens are entitled to vote in these elections, regardless of their residence. Elections are conducted under the single transferable vote and by postal ballot.
The Parliament of Ireland that existed until 1801 included the university constituency of Dublin University. This was continued in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, and in 1918, the National University of Ireland was also given representation there.
When the Irish Free State seceded from the UK in 1922, its new lower house of parliament, the Free State Dáil, had three seats each for the two university constituencies. However, under the Electoral Act 1923 voters registered in a university constituency were not permitted to also vote in a geographical one. Both university constituencies were ultimately abolished by the Constitution (Amendment No. 23) Act 1936 and the Electoral (University Constituencies) Act 1936, which took effect on the dissolution of the Dáil in 1937. These two constituencies re-emerged as part of the Seanad under the Constitution of Ireland adopted in 1937, with the first Seanad election in 1938.
In 1979, the Seventh Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland permitted a redistribution of the six university seats between graduates of these named universities and any other institutes of higher education in the state. This was in anticipation of a possible dissolution of the National University of Ireland, but this did not in fact occur, and no change was made to the electorate of these constituencies.
Some politicians have called for university representation to be abolished, on the ground that it is unacceptable that possession of a degree should confer greater electoral rights than those available to other voters. An example of this view can be found in the Green Party submission on Seanad reform in 2004. The Socialist Party also stand for the abolition of these constituencies.
- India: India had university constituencies before independence, but these were abolished with the adoption of the modern Constitution of India. Nevertheless, today the President of India has the authority to appoint not more than twelve scientists, artists, or other persons who have special knowledge in similar fields, to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house in the Parliament of India. Currently, the upper houses of the state legislatures in the six states that have them have graduates' constituencies, that elect one-twelfth of their members.
- Thirteen Colonies: The College of William & Mary held a seat in the House of Burgesses of the Virginia Colony in 1663, and was supported by taxes on tobacco and furs. This seat was revoked after the House of Burgesses became the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia within the newly independent United States of America.
- Australia: The University of Sydney had a seat in the New South Wales legislative assembly between 1876 and 1880. It was abolished one year after the second member elected, Edmund Barton, took his seat.