The University of London debates

[I have returned to America, and now add to my research work by preparing a paper I’m presenting in November, on the educational debates in the Victorian periodical press.]

While today we think of universities as places where there is teaching and classes, this was not true for the University of London, founded in 1836.

Later called by Dickens “The People’s University”, the University of London provided the opportunity to obtain a degree for those who couldn’t afford Oxbridge residential education, or who weren’t Anglican and thus couldn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge (or, later, Durham). There were no teaching professors – it was strictly an examining body. Yes, it’s how H. G. Wells got his degree, studying on his own until he passed the exams: Matriculation, Intermediate, Bachelors.

Although the U of L website is pretty sketchy on its history, in 2008 they published The People’s University 1858-2008, which has lots of information. It helps provide context for the arguments about the university, in which Wells participated, and is the source for much of the factual information that follows here.

By 1858, the University of London had over 50 colleges affiliated with it, sending students to take examinations, some conferring their own degrees. By 1860, a Bachelor of Science was offered. By 1878, women were routinely admitted for the degree (not just to take preliminary exams).

Beginning in 1887, there were calls for the University of London to establish itself as a teaching university as well as an examining board.  The two original colleges, King’s College London (Anglican) and University College London, considered leaving the U of L to form their own university (called Albert University), which would combine teaching with exams. Their petition to the government for a new charter along these lines was unsuccessful, but unleashed two decades of debate, in which Wells was a vociferous participant.

At stake was everything: the secular focus of the university, the ability of those throughout Britain and the Empire to work for a degree, and the resulting democratization of higher education. The debate also took place at a time when science was establishing itself in the college curricula, often without proper funding or support (another of Wells’ criticisms). There were parties, however, who felt that perhaps there should be two universities in London, one residential and similar to Oxbridge, and the other examining only and based on external students.

Several commissions provided the focus for these questions, including the Selbourne Commission of 1889, and the Gresham Commission which ended in 1894. It was the report of the latter that divided the consideration into Internal students, who would be residential at one of the colleges, and External (non-collegiate) students, who would study elsewhere and just take the exams.

Naturally, any measures that privileged Internal residential students could adversely impact External non-collegiate students, so this was a concern during the major debates about reforming the university. Should, for the sake of academic integrity, a distinction then be made between the degrees of Internal and External students? Because the university had been founded on External students (before they were called that), there was already extensive support in place, including examination centers throughout the empire and in Britain outside London. Would these degrees be considered lesser than those conferred upon residential students, who might have the time and money to spend three years or so in London or at an affiliated college, doing nothing but studying?

By this time, Wells had already earned his B.Sc. through external study that had occupied his evening hours over a number of years. He was acutely sensitive to the opportunity that had been afforded him as a member of the lower-middle class. The degree had enabled him to increase his salary at the University Correspondence College, enough so he could afford to marry and start his own household.

In general, the University presented arguments to the government in favor of no distinction.

In 1898, the University of London Act combined King’s and University colleges, the London School of Economics, and several medical and other colleges, together as a teaching university. Although recommendations were made to close examination centers in colonies that had access to a university, it was made clear in the Act that there was to be no distinction between degrees earned by Internal and External students. Administration was divided between an Academic Council run by professors, and an External Council run by graduates. But the degree was not divided, and the opportunity remains to this day, through distance education, to earn a degree from U of L wherever the student may reside.

It is funny to think that, back in the 1990s and early noughts, I unknowingly participated in a repeat of the Gresham Scheme arguments. In the early days of online learning, there were similar efforts to make a distinction (on transcripts and in degrees) between in-person classes and online (distance learning) classes. I opposed these, as Wells would have. The price of this was accepting that if there was no distinction, those of us teaching online should have the same enrollment limits as in a classroom (for History, that’s 40 students per class). While not the best arrangement (we have known throughout the impossibility of individual attention in classes this large), it solidified the “no distinction” agreement. Just as in Victorian times, this has allowed students, particularly those from less advantaged circumstances, to work toward a college credential with no indication that they achieved it any differently than at a residential college.

2 comments to The University of London debates

  • Lisa, a very interesting historical look at how Wells obtained his degree (I had not known this), and more importantly, cool comparison to the elearning debate of last decade (that continues on some campuses). I was also one of those voices crying that no distinction should be made.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Britt, this is where a lot of my Wells work is intimately connected to distance learning today – it was how I accessed the subject in the first place. There’s a lot more where this came from. I am finding that most of these debates are as relevant now as they were then, and understanding how they were resolved can help us solve problems now.

      Many of the people who saw the potential for educational technology in the early days of the web understood immediately the implications if a distinction was made for the purpose of credentialism. It was a battle that had to be won. However, much of the literature since then has continued to focus on the differences in modalities, which is disheartening. My concern has always been the setting up of the environment for learning, and the willingness to learn through various media.