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The history of university representation

British universities used to have their own parliamentary constituencies and famous names like Francis Bacon, Issac Newton, William Pitt, W E Gladstone, H G Wells and J B Priestley all stood for election for university seats. Heading in to a fresh General Election, Mike Ratcliffe looks at the history of the relationship between universities and political representation.
This article is more than 9 years old

Mike Ratcliffe is a higher education historian and career academic administrator

Being a graduate matters. We know what the benefits are, they have been neatly summarised by numerous reports. For example, OECD data show that graduates are more likely to participate in society, through voting and other participation.

However, before 1950, there was a very real way in which this was true. As a British graduate, you had a vote for your own Member of Parliament. British universities had their own constituencies; by 1945 there were 12 of them. And famous names like Francis Bacon, Issac Newton, William Pitt, W E Gladstone, H G Wells and J B Priestley all stood for election for university constituencies.

University representation

This practice originated in 1603, when James I and VI gave the two English universities their own MPs which lasted until 1948. The best account of the emergence of university representation remains that by Millicent Rex from 1954 in her seminal book: University Representation in England 1604-1690.

She describes how increasing parliamentary influence over religious, land and civic matters led to the universities seeking representation as protection against interference. In his book A History of the University of Cambridge, Victor Morgan agrees: Cambridge wanted representation in matters that affected them. The burgesses were a complementary part of university influence with government, which affected the choice of chancellor amongst other things.

Trinity College, Dublin, shortly afterwards gained a seat in the Irish Parliament which was  transferred to Westminster in 1803. The Irish retain their university seats, having moved the constituencies from the Dáil to the Senate from 1938.

The original writ of summons gave limited details on how an election was to happen, but the power was granted to the corporate entity – which was the ‘Chancellor, Masters and Scholars’. It fell to the highest authority, the Convocation or Senate, to organise the election – these consisted of all MA and doctorate holders, both those resident and non-resident. From the outset, the Scholars – students – had no say.

In an accompanying letter that Rex discovered, Sir Edward Coke advised the universities that a ‘Professor of Civil Lawe’ might be a good choice but that electing the vice chancellor would not be appropriate.

1603 – 1918

Although the procedures were established, the conduct of elections from the universities were probably on a par with other contemporary Parliamentary elections, i.e pretty poor and highly inconsistent.

Examples abound of interesting practices in the 17th Century, such as Cambridge successively electing the sons of Oliver Cromwell during the interregnum.

After the restoration, in 1661, Lawrence Hyde and Heneage Finch were elected by Oxford as burgesses for the ‘cavalier parliament’. Hyde was only 20, but his father was the earl of Clarendon, Chancellor of the University, while Finch was much more established. Bennett describes the benefit that came to the university as Hyde, as earl of Rochester, and Finch, as earl of Nottingham directed ecclesiastical patronage to members of the University.

In 1690, the Chancellor of Cambridge, the Duke of Somerset, induced the university to elect his cousin, Hon Henry Boyle. Boyle was not a member of the university, so he was rapidly admitted to Trinity College, and the Duke arrived at Cambridge to preside over the election himself. Boyle was duly elected.

Safe country gentlemen

The universities settled into a pattern of effectively electing either safe country gentlemen or rising young men, often at the request of magnates or the Crown, who were often unopposed particularly after their first election. At Cambridge where it was possible for doctorates to be conferred by royal mandate; hundreds of electors were created through this route to ensure the election went the right way.

Over time the university burgesses included some distinguished men such as Pitt, Palmerstone and Gladstone. By the 19th Century the elections were increasingly dominated by the return of non-resident MAs (most often clergy – who had an incentive to take the MA and to keep themselves on their college’s books), assisted first by faster coaches and then by the railways. Gladstone found himself beaten in 1865 by voters concerned about church interests.

Reforms of University of London and the Scottish Universities in the 1850s created the conditions for them to press for representation. Seats were created – one for London and two for the Scottish Universities. The reforms had given each authorities consisting of staff and graduates, Convocation (for London) and the General Councils in Scotland, and the power of electing the members was given to them. London successfully fought off a proposal to have Durham graduates added to its constituency.


The 1918 Representation of the People Act brought an large increase in suffrage and a decrease in plurality. The university constituencies survived, and were reformed along a common basis, with new constituencies for Queen’s Belfast, and for the new universities of Wales and the Combined English Universities.

A person might be registered in different universities, but was only allowed one vote at each election. Discussions about electoral reform had included both the Alternative Vote and other proportional representation for the whole of the Commons, but it was only the university constituencies, with their multiple MPs, that ended up with a different voting system making one of the unique aspects of university seats being that they returned MPs to Westminster using Single Transferable Votes.

For Oxford and Cambridge, the change in the wider suffrage meant that holders of BAs got a vote. Women graduates were given the vote, although as neither Oxford or Cambridge university awarded them degrees yet, there had to be special arrangements:

A woman shall be entitled to be registered as a parliamentary elector for a university constituency if she has attained the age of thirty years and either would be entitled to be so registered if she were a man, or has been admitted to and passed the final examination, and kept under the conditions required of women by the university the period of residence, necessary for a man to obtain a degree at any university forming, or forming part of, a university constituency which did not at the time the examination was passed admit women to degrees. (Representation of the People Act, 1918)

One outcome was the election in 1929 of Eleanor Rathbone as an independent for the combined English Universities, the only woman to represent a university seat, and who made a major political contribution, not least through her campaign for family allowances.

Although university constituencies were retained, they came under pressure as an example of plural voting. The 1918 Act had retained the concept of the ‘business vote’, whereby additional votes were given to company owners. In 1931 a bill was introduced to change this so that electors could chose where to cast their vote – either in their ‘business’, ‘home’ or a university constituency, but plurality survived.

A Speaker’s conference made recommendations for reforms to electoral systems after the Second World War, and recommended keeping the university seats. However, when a cabinet committee drew up the draft legislation in 1947, it turned against all plural voting, including the university seats. The proposal was greeted with anger, with the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Churchill, leading to a stream of angry rhetoric against the ‘Socialist Party’ for breaking 350 years of tradition, and for ignoring the advantages of intellect and education that the university seats brought Parliament.

Many in the debate stressed the value of university MPs as popular idependents; Eleanor Rathbone had commanded 53% of the first preference votes for Combined English Universities in 1945.  However, Labour could argue that, on her death, the resulting by-election had returned Henry Straus; a former conservative MP and junior minister.  Labour had done particularly poorly in university elections, despite candidates such as Sidney Webb and H G Wells, never winning a seat (Ramsey MacDonald was elected to the Scottish Universities seat in 1936, but as ‘National Labour’, having been expelled from the Labour party).

The value of the university members as independents was stressed, with Eleanor Rathbone being the prime example. In 1945 she had commanded 53% of the first preference votes; although this undermined their argument as on her death in 1947 she was replaced by Henry Strauss – who had been a Conservative MP and junior minister before.

The end of an era

Although there was much protest in print, the Representation of the People Act 1948 removed the university seats. The Conservative manifesto of 1950 promised to restore them, but their time was numbered.

In retrospect the seats had achieved some of their original aims – principally linking universities to Parliament. Participation in the elections (especially after postal voting), provided a rationale for continuing graduate links with their universities, with a tangible sense of privilege as a graduate. Although members showed sparks of independence, AJP Taylor noted that they could mostly be ‘relied on to return reactionary members’.

It’s hard not to speculate about the senior academics such as Mary Warnock or policy wonks like Andrew Adonis or Jonathan Hill that might have represented universities in Parliament if the old system of university representation was still in place.

You can argue that the best features claimed for the university MPs: an independence from local party machines; was transferred to the House of Lords, particularly with the creation of Life Peers. Now, many Chancellors of unversities are also life peers and so provide a different sort of representation, particularly when the Lords debate higher education matters.

Any plan to reform the Lords including the loss of the cross-benchers might lead us to reconsider the kinds of constituencies that might form the second chamber – the Irish senators from universities are mostly independents and there is much to learn from their experienece. But extra votes for university staff, graduates or students? It’s unlikely to make a comeback any time soon.


Further reading

In addition to the following, T L Humberstone’s 1951 University Representation (London, Hutchison) is highly partisan, but the only complete account of university MPs.

The 1948 Hansard account of the second reading of the Representation of the People Act (HC Deb 16 February 1948) is worth a read, not least as it reflects the antipathy of Churchill’s conservatives to the ‘Socialist Party’ in government.

Bennett, G V, 1986, ‘Loyalist Oxford and the Revolution’ in Sutherland LS and Mitcell LG, The History of the University of Oxford Vol V The Eighteenth Century, Oxford, Claredon Press

Morgan, V, 2004, A History of the University of Cambridge, Vol II 1546-1750, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Rex, M, 1954, University Representation in England 1604-1690, London, George Allen & Unwin

Taylor, AJP, 1965, English History 1914-1945, Oxford, Oxford University Press

10 responses to “The history of university representation

  1. Really interesting article – and the idea of university representation in a reformed House of Lords is one worth further exploration. It’s also interesting to speculate whether, had they not been abolished, whether their tendency to elect ‘reactionary members’ would have changed once we reached the 1960s and expansion of access and the increasing student radicalism (granted students didn’t get to vote).

    I’ve got a couple of minor points of accuracy – university representation existed in the pre-Union Parliament of Scotland (this is where James got the idea) so the practice was in fact even older than 1603 – though the Scottish universities lost their representation after the Union, and it wasn’t restored until 1868 as you mention. And although abolished by the 1948 Act the university constituencies survived a little longer, until the next general election in 1950.

    1. David,

      Thanks for the comment. Do you have a reference for the Scottish precedent? That’s the story on wikipedia, but all the authors I consulted said it was a notion that had been suggested in England during Elizabeth’s reign and it had no Scots predecessor. I checked a couple of histories of the pre-union Scots parliaments and found no mention, and a cursory look through some of the histories of the Scots universities didn’t turn up any mention of burgesses.

      You’re right that the university MPs served out their term until the 1950 election

  2. A footnote: The Privy Council has a “Universities Committee” which “which considers Petitions against statutes made by Oxford and Cambridge Universities and their colleges”. It last met in 1995.

    1. The Privy Council has some residual powers over universities, they are the final stage in university title consideration, changes to charters etc. Although they still have this because they do that kind of formal business, the Privy Council used to be as much of an education ministry as we had. That’s another story…

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