Oxbridge Adjusts – Renewing an Elite Oliver Hadingham spacetrashjpg

July 31, 2017

Oliver Hadingham of Waseda University, Japan, examines the reforms the medieval universities of Oxford and Cambridge underwent during the nineteenth century and questions whether the two institutions have sufficient capacity for change to shake off their elitist reputation, in an article based on research first presented at The Asian Conference on Education 2016.


Despite the continued academic eminence of Oxford and Cambridge universities, the complaint that they remain too elitist for a rapidly transforming world has grown shriller. Every August, when high school exam results are released and places at universities throughout the UK are secured, newspaper columnists marvel at the ever-growing numbers of British state school leavers entering universities (89.9%) while bemoaning the fact that the “widening participation” tide has not fully breached the ivory towers of the two ancient universities. State school entrants account for 56% of Oxford’s intake and 62% of Cambridge’s. The remainder of Oxbridge (as Oxford and Cambridge is collectively known) entrants are drawn from private schools. The scandal is that private schools educate a mere 7% of British children.

“The two medieval universities should strive to be more representative and less elitist.”

This fact creates more heat than the average British summer. Many rally against the posh stitch-up that the Oxbridge figures imply; others point out that it is largely a failure of the state schools in not equipping their pupils with the ambition and exam grades that an Oxbridge application requires, as well as the nous to survive an Oxbridge interview. The two medieval universities should strive to be more representative and less elitist. For many, little has apparently changed since Edward Gibbon fled a remote and hidebound Magdalen College, Oxford, in the 1750s complaining of dons “steeped in port and prejudice”.

Yet in the nineteenth century Oxbridge proved it could adapt to times equally as challenging as our own. Reform was gradual and often grudging, but Oxford and Cambridge took on a new role within the more industrial age of the nineteenth century. There is every likelihood the two ancient universities can adjust to the more culturally democratic era of today.


The “utility” of higher education

As the nineteenth century progressed, realization grew that the two old universities were in need of fundamental reform. As the nation become more industrial and cities expanded, all institutions had to adjust to and often accommodate new forces. One accommodation was the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828, which extended the civil liberties of Dissenters, while the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1833 had allowed Catholics into parliament, an acknowledgment that England was more religiously diverse than ever before. Discontent, agitation and unrest simmered through the 1830s and 40s. Vast social problems such as prostitution and crime, poor public health and bad housing were proving worrying amid so much material and technological progress. Taming the extremes of a society in transition was something Oxbridge graduates, as the spiritual custodians and political elite of the nation, appeared too parochial and intellectually lacklustre to achieve.

What propelled the founding of the new universities to rival Oxford and Cambridge was the idea of “utility”. Richard Edgeworth’s Essays in Professional Education (1809) stressed the practical usefulness of university teaching, maintaining that a broader range of subjects on the university curriculum addressed the needs of the wider society more fully. Teaching at the old universities had grown stale and complacent. “Nobody doubts,” Edgeworth stated, “that there are parts of most college courses, which are useless in the business of the world, and ridiculous in the present state of society, but which gothic custom has retained.”

“It was this idea of ‘utility’ and the example of the Scottish universities that encouraged an expansion of higher education in England.”

The Scottish universities offered a more vocational emphasis in medicine, law and theology. It was this idea of “utility” and the example of the Scottish universities that encouraged an expansion of higher education in England. The University of London (1828), renamed University College London in 1836, imposed no religious tests on its students and was not residential. Its wide curriculum was more professionally focused, preparing students for careers in law and medicine, for instance. Lectures formed the basis of teaching, with professors paid directly from comparatively low tuition fees, starting at £22 per annum. King’s College (1831) and Durham (1832) offered wider curricula than Oxford or Cambridge, and while attendance at Anglican prayers was obligatory, King’s placed great import on its medical school, and Durham its engineering school.

Even if reform of the ancient universities was deemed vital, it took time. The Cambridge Senate approved the establishing of a degree in natural sciences in 1848, and one for the moral sciences (history, law, political economy and moral philosophy), together with a new mathematics degree. Oxford established schools of natural science, law and history in 1850; the following year degrees in natural science and modern science were introduced at Cambridge.


Oxbridge modernized

In 1852 Royal Commissions examined the state of the two old universities. Lord John Russell pinpointed the aim of reform, to ensure good feeling among the wider Victorian society “by opening easy means of transition for the promising youth of one class to rise into another”. The Commissions led to Acts of Parliament for Oxford in 1854 and Cambridge in 1856. These Acts allowed non-conformists to enroll on degree courses – but not ones in theology – by abolishing the need to sign the Thirty-Nine Articles. This was a document outlining the doctrine of the Church of England, which Oxford freshmen had to sign to affirm their belief in the Anglican creed; an increasing anomaly as religious belief was waning among Anglicans, and Nonconformists had become a significant presence in provincial towns and cities. Oxford and Cambridge fellows, too, were expected to be ordained soon after taking up their appointment, and were also to remain celibate. Another obstacle to an expanded Oxbridge-educated elite was the barring of non-Anglicans from becoming fellows, and the insistence that only students who signed the Thirty-Nine Articles could receive Masters degrees, prizes and distinctions.

“Casting off the medieval fetters was merely a first step towards meeting the demands of a more industrial and competitive age.”

Not until the Universities Religious Tests Act of 1871 was a more complete separation of intellectual work from religious belief achieved. Goldwin Smith, Oxford don and secretary to the Commission, saw in the move to reform Oxford a desire “to strike off the fetters of medieval statutes from it and from its Colleges, set it free from the predominance of ecclesiasticism, recall it to its proper work, and restore it to the nation”. Yet such religious issues seemed insignificant given that revolution was sweeping through Europe in 1848, bringing dramatically to the fore social and political issues that had simmered through the 1840s. Casting off the medieval fetters was merely a first step towards meeting the demands of a more industrial and competitive age.


Entry into a professional and social elite

The supplanting of oral exams by uniform written exams was a significant reform that reflected the changing times. By 1850, written exams had become the only means of assessment. Teaching focused on examinable subjects, and many students hired private tutors. The class of degree mattered; someone achieving a First was destined for greatness. The value of examinations and the need for professionalization was evident elsewhere. The civil service reforms of 1855 and 1870 established an exam as the means of entry to replace the system of nomination that had existed. The 1853 Northcote-Trevelyan report sought to establish competitive exams and promotion through merit, as well as a separation of “intellectual” and “mechanical” jobs. The Civil Service exams were a sign of the growing professionalization of British society – that personal qualities in a more professional age should trump personal connections. Of course, patronage and nepotism still operated. Yet for aspiring middle-class families an Oxbridge education served as a springboard to social and professional advancement – allowing students to make the right connections but also to learn the right things. The civil service exams garnered great prestige among parents and peers. As Gladstone stated, the emphasis on an intellectual stream of the civil service would “open to the highly educated class a career and give then a command over all the higher parts of the civil service”. This took time, but by the close of the Victorian era Oxbridge accounted for 75% of civil service entrants, with the majority coming from professional families.

The issue was how best to assimilate new social forces within the existing hierarchy. Through an Oxbridge education those of talent could smoothly blend into a time-honoured, hierarchical society. As Walter Bagehot said, Oxbridge education bestows “…a certain cultivation, certain friendships, certain manners”. In Thackeray’s novel The History of Pendennis, Oxbridge represents a “first entrée into the world as a gentleman”. Such assimilation bolstered the existing hierarchy rather than threatened it.

A reinvigorated and expanding public school (i.e. what for British people invariably means private, fee-paying school) sector played its part in supplying new Oxbridge men. The public schools offered a preliminary moulding of gentlemen “all-rounders” through a classics-heavy curriculum, a useful grounding for Oxbridge. The railways and the move to town suburbs gave upper middle-class lawyers, doctors, clergymen and higher-ranked civil servants a less provincial, more outward and aspiring perceptive that surely influenced how they chose to educate their sons. Upper-middle-class boys would invariably go on to Oxbridge. Oxford undergraduate admissions went from 163 public school boys in 1848/9 to 558 in 1861; Cambridge from 105 to 305. By the late 1870s, the Oxford-graduating sons of professionals and businessmen outnumbered those of landowners and clergy.


New school ties

Of course, the gradual opening up of Oxbridge over the last few centuries is incomplete. Yet, viewed historically, widening participation has occurred and is occurring. Current debate often overlooks the fact that many state school pupils apply for more vocational subjects at Oxford and Cambridge, subjects that attract vaster numbers than, say, subjects like medieval history or classics, and that the top pupils at schools in more deprived areas may not always be pushed by their teachers to apply for Oxbridge, for fear of false hopes or that a failed application may dent their self-esteem irrevocably. We should be less critical of the much-maligned Oxbridge admissions officers who deal with issues they cannot really control.

“The fact remains that the current edition of Who’s Who remains largely a catalogue of the private-school and Oxbridge educated.”

The fact remains that the current edition of Who’s Who (the guide to the upper echelons of British society) remains largely a catalogue of the private-school and Oxbridge educated. But the sensible chaps with fat bottoms who currently occupy boardroom and judges’ bench went to school four or five decades ago, when the old school tie still contributed to launching and sustaining careers. They will in turn make room for others.

In 20 or 30 years, the establishment is likely to remain noticeably Oxbridge educated, but, given the rising standards in much of the state school sector – where the exam results in the best state schools generally equal or surpass those at the better private schools – the old school tie may be less visible. Chances are the British establishment of 2040 will be more concerned with promoting their personal brand via social media than with reminiscing about their part in victory over Harrow, Eton, Westminster or Rugby on the private school playing field. Such reminiscences may not be possible for a large number of them. Will “Where didn’t you go to school?” become the virtue-signalling question for the elite that “Where did you go to school?” used to be? Rest assured that over the next few decades a select number of these recent and future Oxbridge graduates will find their way into the higher reaches of industry, finance, government and the civil service. And the Establishment will remain peopled by the “great and the good” – an elite just as sensible and fat-bottomed as their more privileged, more privately educated forebears.


Image | spacetrash, Flickr

Oliver Hadingham first presented this research, in greater detail, at The Asian Conference on Education 2016.

This is the second of two articles by Oliver Hadingham on the nineteenth-century British education system. The first article, “A Gentleman’s Education – Then As Now“, was published in THINK on November 28, 2016.

Select Bibliography

Anderson, R. D. (1995). Universities and elites in Britain since 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brock, M. G., & Curthoys, M. C. (1997). Nineteenth-century Oxford. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Brooke, C. (1993) A history of the University of Cambridge, IV, 1870–1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hilton, B. (2006). A mad, bad, and dangerous people? England, 1783–1846. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hoppen, K. T. (1998). The mid-Victorian generation: 1846–1886. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Searby, P. & Brooke, C. (1997). A history of the University of Cambridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, F. M. L. (1988). The rise of respectable society: A social history of Victorian Britain: 1830–1900. London: Fontana Press.

Oliver Hadingham

About Oliver Hadingham

Oliver Hadingham works in the Department of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University, Japan. He graduated in government and sociology, and holds a higher degree in political behaviour, for which he received ESRC funding. His research interests include nineteenth-century history, elites and education policy.

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