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Office for Students rewrites sector history

David Kernohan was excited to read the first entries on the shiny new Office for Students Register. But he wasn't expecting to find an ancient hierarchy turned upside down...
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The question came up in my local pub quiz, a few weeks back. “Which is the oldest university in Britain?”. Mine host had “Oxford” on his answer sheet, and that is the generally accepted answer. But as the four hastily scribbled paragraphs on the back of my picture round – so cruelly mocked on submission – attest, the answer is much more complicated than that.

I do have an interest in the history of higher education, and I’d mentally filed the debate as interesting but hardly newsworthy until yesterday’s shock announcement from the Office for Students reignited a centuries-old debate.

The oldest university in England, according to the OfS Register, is the University of Cambridge – founded in 1209.

A question for the ages

The first Oxford-related event recognised by our regulator is the installation of the first Chancellor in 1214. And even this is suspicious – the first Chancellor listed by the University of Oxford itself is Robert Grosseteste, in around 1222.

I called a clearly delighted OfS press office, who told me “the information in that field of the Register has been drawn from the information provided by a provider in its application for registration.” Oxford confirmed with us that 1214 is the date of the ‘award of the papal legate,’ which provided for the for the appointment of a chancellor by the Bishop of Lincoln. Due to the meagre evidence available, it is not completely clear who the first holder of the position was and when he took it up.

And Oxford also confirmed that they have no firm date of foundation, but that the first evidence of teaching in Oxford dates from around 1096. However, it was not until Henry II banned students from attending the University of Paris in 1167 that the then town started to gain traction as a centre of learning. By the beginning of the 13th century more than 70 masters were teaching in Oxford, and the university was officially recognised as a corporation in 1231.

As it is generally accepted that Cambridge was founded in 1209 by displaced scholars from Oxford following a series of events including murder, political intrigue, and overlapping jurisdictions (basically an episode of Morse) we can assume that Oxford must have been in existence in some form before that time. But to read the Register, you may not think so.

By what authority?

More alarmingly, we apparently have no information regarding how Oxford and Cambridge gained degree awarding powers. Cells for both providers in this field are left blank – which is fair, we simply do not know (though it is fair to assume a Common Law basis – they have degree awarding powers because they award degrees, in other words). Both were already awarding degrees and had Royal approval to do so at the time of the first Act of Parliament that bears their names (1571), as the introductory text states:

And to thentent that the auncient Priveleges Liberties and Fraunchises of either of the said Universities here before graunted ratified and confirmed by the Queenes Highnes and her most noble Progenitors may be had in greater Estymation and be of greater Force and Strengthe, for the better Increase of Larning and the further suppressing of Vice

It is likely that both grew as a kind of an autonomous collective, a guild of students and teachers coming together to share resources and eventually developing formal and informal frameworks to support this. And such informality means that – surprisingly for such august institutions – records of these early developments are scant and often contradictory. We hear about these early years in the interaction of the proto-universities with other bodies – a kind of medieval “reportable event” if you will.

As Lowe and Yasutara describe it in their sublime “The Origins of Higher Learning” (Routledge, 2017):

The expertise of the teachers became critical […] inevitably, some of this teaching became more advanced. It was a situation ripe for particular locations to develop particular specialisms […]. And once these reputations were established, they initiated an ongoing process of specialisation which was to lead inexorably towards the recognition of the first universities

The condition of the conditions

The other forty institutions listed on this first iteration of the OfS Register do not have such complex histories, but neither (apart from the Royal Northern College of Music, which needs to resubmit governance documentation) do they have a condition attached to their registration.

In each case the condition is hardly unexpected – they need to provide an evaluation of their funded access and participation plan for 2019-20. This was, of course, an Office for Fair Access (OFFA) requirement – the request is just a formal expression of the soft power used by the former body to ensure institutions submitted these evaluations on time. The idea that these represent “areas where the OfS has identified increased risk” is questionable.

This first tranche of the Register represents those institutions who submitted back in April, generally those who use early UCAS application deadlines. It’s a mixed bunch of traditional and alternative providers, and will be followed in no particular order by others as their applications are assessed. Ribbing aside, the new OfS has done a superb job in turning these round so quickly during a time of organisational change.

But the Register will become the definitive list of English HE providers as more records are added and more approvals recorded. It will be the ultimate authority as to the activity and attributes of each institution. And as such, it states that Cambridge is older than Oxford.

Your next quiz question – which is the third oldest university in England?

13 responses to “Office for Students rewrites sector history

  1. I was under the impression the third oldest was Durham, but I should be interested to know (or hear the OfS perspective, for that matter!).

  2. Yes but I think the University of Manchester (1824) May have something to say about that.

    Also note: original question was oldest university in Britain so before we pile in with our Johnny-come-lately English institutions it’s perhaps worth giving a nod in the direction of Scotland where St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh sprang up twixt 1410 and 1583.

  3. @Jonathan – original question was (deliberately) England.

    On Manchester – if we’re going to drag in the establishment of long gone medical colleges as foundation dates may I point you in the direction of QMUL? 🙂

  4. *UMIST* was founded in 1824 as the Manchester Mechanics Institute. The Victoria University of Manchester was founded in 1851.

    Signed, a UMIST alumnus 🙂

  5. Am I going to be the only commentator to point out that both Oxford and Cambridge founded themselves and needed no external authority?

    The scholars of Oxford formed a corporation (which is the meaning of the word ‘universitas’ ) which was essentially simple a medieval guild like those whose practitioners were goldsmiths or fishmongers.

    And of course Oxford is older than Cambridge, which is a mere offshoot composed of discontented scholars who headed into the Fens and formed their own ‘universitas’.

    As guilds both admitted those they chose to admit as members, set their own standards and awarded their own ‘degrees’ ( gradus).

  6. @Gill thank you. I cover these issues in the article, which I suspect is why they have yet to be broached in the comments!

  7. The article and comments will be useful as with my co-author David Palfreyman I start to review text for a third edition Chapter 1 of ‘The Law of Higher Education’ (OUP, 2012) where there is a brief history. It is clear to me that Oxford was the first institution in England to justify the designation ‘university’ in our current understanding of what that means. Cambridge was second. Whichever English institution claims third place, it adopted the ‘degree’ or ‘gradus’ invented by the medieval corporations/guilds and now we have a European, indeed worldwide system of classification of degrees (B, M and D or equivalent) based on events of the 11th century. The discussion of history of h.e. might seem a tad dry subject but it begs the question should we now have degrees at all? Some certification of competence may be required but why degrees?

  8. Third oldest University in England? Northampton (the original one) surely?

    Are you counting Colleges too? If so, the Royal Veterinary College was established in 1795, but I don’ think they are third either.

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