Calling the Tune: British Universities and the State, 1880-1914

Keith Vernon, senior lecturer in Modern Social History at University of Central Lancashire, keeps popping up in my readings, because he focuses on the history of higher and technical education in the 19th and 20th centuries. This one is from 2001.

All history articles have what I call an “although” thesis, stated or implied. It’s usually something along the lines of, “although historians have seen it this way, they’re wrong and here’s why”. This article was no exception. Apparently the scholarly analyses of educational change published in the late 1980s and 1990s were in error in concentrating on the role of the state in the development of British universities only after 1919, when the University Grants Committee came into being. Such direct influence from the government on the universities came earlier. Of course, since I’ve been studying the grants given by the Science and Art Department, later the Board of Education, during the 1880s, it was easy to agree with Vernon’s thesis. I learned the government was always willing to fund universities in the interest of helping them become cultural centers, and that the funding in the late 19th century was thus limited to sciences and arts and restricted from vocational subjects (including medicine). I learned that Oxford and Cambridge had quite a bit of their own funding, but that other entities throughout Britain who wanted to become universities had to prove their university-level arts and sciences to the government to get money. Thus a pattern of “investigation, regulation and funding” (p253) emerged that ensured that new universities towed the line, even while the government insisted that local funding remained primary, especially as provincial institutions were inherently local in their perspective and usefulness.

Even Oxford and Cambridge, however, expanded access during the latter part of the 19th century. Doing so, interestingly, undermined for some the reason for the University of London, which had been to first to allow Dissenters, women, and poorer people to obtain degrees. Despite the separation between academic and vocational studies that Vernon insists was enforced by the government, however, teaching seems to have been the exception. He notes that the university colleges primarily engaged in teacher training, and that following the investigations of 1895, the Treasury remained skeptical and wanted to “ensure that a reasonable number of arts and science students were studying for purely academic reasons, not on vocational courses” (p261). Perhaps this is why so many teachers at that time, including H.G. Wells, wanted to earn a degree, and it may suggest reasons why having one was necessary to getting a good position as a schoolmaster.

The other interesting section of the article concerned the battle over Gresham University, or what I’ve seen elsewhere called The Gresham Scheme. In 1892, the issues brought forth by University College and King’s College, both integral parts of the University of London (though they didn’t want to be) could not be resolved. The two colleges allied with 10 medical schools to recommend a teaching university with the name Gresham University. The Cowper Commission instead, in 1894, recommended keeping one University of London but dividing the internal (teaching) and external (examining) functions. Just as it got interesting, the article jumped into the 20th century. But when it did so, it claimed that admiration for Germany caused the new reforms that created the Imperial College, constructed out of the old Normal School of Science (attended by HG) and other South Kensington entities. Imperial College “was explicitly designed as a technological powerhouse for the empire” (p264). So long as we’re arguing for earlier origins of things, I would argue that the German influence came much earlier, when the payment-by-results and other schemes were introduced in order to encourage science teaching.



Vernon, Keith. 2001. “Calling the Tune: British Universities and the State, 1880-1914.” Hist. Educ. 30 (3): 251–71.

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