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In company with the other twelfth-century universities of Paris and Bologna, Oxford can claim to be among the oldest of the European universities. Its foundation date, often a matter of fantastic speculation, remains unclear. All that can be said is that Oxford recognizably became a university between 1192 and 1200. Located in a river valley fed by tributaries of the Thames River, the town and the university were named for the river crossing (oxen-ford). Since no new university was established in England (although four or five in Scotland) until the formation of the University of London in the 1820s, Oxford and Cambridge (collectively termed Oxbridge or less frequently Camford) long held a duopoly on the education and training of leading politicians, Roman Catholic and afterward Church of England clergy and bishops, civil service administrators at home and abroad, and representatives of the arts and sciences. Even the Scots, with their own fine university traditions, attended the ancient universities in order to take advantage of their connections and networks.
Oxford in the twenty-first century remains one of a handful of world universities correctly described as collegiate. It is a federation of some seven permanent private halls and thirty-nine self-governing and endowed colleges scattered about the city of Oxford. A good number of these are twentieth-century foundations, updating ancient traditions to take advantage of new subjects and new kinds of students. The first colleges appeared in the thirteenth century, but most were founded later. Historically associated with teaching and student residence, the first college to actually admit undergraduates was New College in the fourteenth century. Women’s colleges date from the 1860s. Infamously, however, women did not receive degrees until 1920 (or 1948 at Cambridge). Only Saint Hilda’s College, founded in 1893, is restricted to women.
Responsibility for teaching and scholarship is divided between colleges and the university, between tutors (called dons from the Latin dominum or master) and professors, but from the sixteenth century (the early modern period) until recently the colleges were dominant. That was mainly, if not entirely, a consequence of the Protestant Reformation, expanded royal government, and international trade and rivalry. Loyal and well-educated administrators were required for service in church and state. The small size of the colleges and their systems of personal instruction and discipline in a residential setting were well suited for the education of potential leaders. The new elites were heavily drawn from established families. The collegiate university primarily bestowed its blessings on those already favored; in particular, the scions of landed society influenced the tone of the university by their often careless but also glamorous habits well into the nineteenth century.
In recent decades, considerable scholarly attention has been directed to the social composition of Oxford through the ages, a reflection of current concerns about access to higher education. However, owing to the absence of university matriculation records, estimates of the social composition of Oxford are harder to provide for the period before 1565. Entries afterward are listed by hierarchical status rankings, rather than by social or occupational groupings, as is present practice, and historians disagree on how to interpret them. The earlier records kept by colleges are often incomplete or confusing.
In the broadest terms, it can be said that until very recently wealth and privilege were always accorded a warm reception at Oxford. The numbers of recruits from the poorer sections of English society, meaning the children of farm laborers in the earliest centuries or industrial workers in the later ones, were generally in short supply. To give an example from Lincoln College from 1680 to 1799, of 972 admits, over half came from landed or gentlemanly families and another 266 from clergy, to include the higher ranks. Only 155 were listed as plebeian, a catchall category difficult to refine. A more complete analysis of the entire university for the 1901-1975 period, comprising 3,512 entries, more clearly indicates the changes. Professional families accounted for 1,564 admits; 1,059 were from commerce, finance, and industry, and 217 from white-collar families. Only 182 can be called skilled workers, and only several dozen fit the description of unskilled or manual workers.
As a generalization, it can be ventured that Oxford’s social transformation from a university serving mainly the sons of landed and clerical families began to shift from about 1850, when professional and business families started to become dominant. This was the pattern that could be expected of most elite institutions. Gradually but firmly Oxford ceased to be a university of the traditionally privileged and became instead the destination of new generations of outstanding undergraduates from middle-income families, befitting the economic transformations that had occurred as a result of industrialism and the expansion of the urban professions.
As a center of learning and scholarship, Oxford’s reputation declined in the Age of the Enlightenment. Enrollments fell, teaching was neglected, and one famous undergraduate, the future historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), characterized the dons of his day as addicted to “port and prejudice.” More recently, historians have uncovered evidence for greater intellectual vitality than previously supposed. Yet it is the case that a serious and almost total educational transformation of the university and its colleges did not occur until the next century. The first step around 1800 was a demanding and subsequently famous honors examination in the subject of literae humaniores (called “Greats”). Composed of classical languages, philosophy, and history, it became the prototype of later competitive examinations. For a long while, “Greats” was regarded as the leading subject, attracting the best and most success-minded students. To begin with, improvements in teaching and examining were internal reforms, but criticisms persisted that the university and its colleges tolerated weak students, gave scholarships to the unworthy, failed to impose needed discipline, were slow in furthering the advance of modern and scientific subjects, and misused plentiful endowments. Oligopoly control of the colleges and central administration was attacked. By the middle of the nineteenth century, public opinion demanded radical reforms. For some twenty years thereafter, royal and other commissions recommended, and Parliament introduced, changes affecting all aspects of governance, financing, and the curriculum. Research was added to teaching as an academic mission, and professorial chairs were created in new subjects. If Cambridge led the way in the mathematical sciences, Oxford excelled in classical languages, ethical philosophy, and medieval history. At present, Oxford is well represented in all fields of intellectual inquiry.
Repeal of two inherited restrictions in the Victorian period furthered the process of renewal and scholarly excellence. Celibacy was abolished as a condition of holding college teaching appointments, a major step in the formation of professional academic careers; and non-Anglican undergraduates were admitted without being required to take an oath of allegiance to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Since half the kingdom adhered to other denominations, the pool of worthy candidates widened. However, a certain element of snobbery persisted well into the Edwardian period, not only toward the few working-class undergraduates in attendance but also toward students of Jewish origin or from India and Africa.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Oxford was also renowned as the training ground of proconsuls, the distinguished imperial administrators in the heyday of the British Empire. Under Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), its legendary master, Victorian Balliol College acquired a reputation as the nursery of prime ministers, but the great William Gladstone (1809-1898), who became prime minister in 1868, had studied at Christ Church, the most aristocratic of the colleges, although he was not descended from landed gentlemen.
Protesting a growing secularism and religious tolerance, John Henry Newman (1801-1890), a fellow of Oriel College, left Oxford in 1842 and converted to Roman Catholicism. His subsequent reflections and lectures, published under the heading of The Idea of a University (1853), became among the most influential and lasting books ever written on the purpose of a liberal education. But Newman was right. Oxford had indeed changed. Once described as the “home of lost causes,” a reference to the university’s sometime attachments to deposed monarchs and High Church principles, or, romantically, as a place of “dreaming spires,” an allusion to its distance from social realities, Oxford was once again at the center of the transformed educational and intellectual life of a modern Britain. Oxford dons helped establish new universities, such as Bristol, and fully participated in outreach or extension movements. Rhodes Scholarships, a bequest by the imperialist Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) at the turn of the twentieth century, brought overseas students to the university, as did the introduction of advanced research degrees. Oxford’s influence spread throughout the English-speaking world, indeed, everywhere.
The list of distinguished men and women who studied or taught at Oxford is endless. In the fourteenth century, William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349) added to the luster of the university’s fame in logic. In the same century, John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384), master of Balliol, challenged the papacy by advocating a Bible in the vernacular. The seminal philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was at Oxford in the late seventeenth century. In the following century, Edmund Halley (1656-1742) gave his name to a comet, and starting in 1729 John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) initiated practices that resulted in the birth of Methodism. Romantic poets like Percy B. Shelley (1792-1822, expelled for atheism) and Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) were at Oxford in the nineteenth century. Two celebrated twentieth-century graduates were Lord Curzon (1859-1925), viceroy of India and chancellor of the university, and Vera Brittain (1893-1970), who studied at Somerville College (founded in 1879) and became a leader of the women’s emancipation movement. Closer to the present, A. H. Halsey put sociology on the Oxford map. The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was one of the most respected and admired Oxford personalities of the twentieth century.
The British Isles (to include Ulster) currently possess well over a hundred institutions denominated universities and numerous polytechnics, specialized schools, and further education colleges. Yet despite competition, Oxford’s superior reputation remains. Its long history, endowments, magnificent libraries and collections of art, exquisite gardens, splendid architecture, and distinguished graduates at home and abroad provide advantages that guarantee its continued presence among the top five or ten research universities in the world as measured by peer approval.
In the twenty-first century Oxford recruits more broadly than ever before. The collegiate system is intact but less dominant. High technology, laboratory science, medicine, and postgraduate research are more closely associated with the professors than with the tutors, and with the university more than with the colleges. New market- based initiatives for financing have enhanced the importance of the central administration. However, as the bulk of Oxford’s income is derived from the government, institutional independence and academic freedom are serious issues for the twenty-first century. Universities everywhere are being called upon to address multiple social problems, generate wealth, and improve national efficiency in a global environment. However challenging these conditions, it is abundantly clear that contemporary Oxford has little interest in becoming a home for lost causes.
- Adams, Pauline. 1996. Somerville for Women: An Oxford College, 1879–1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aston, T. H., ed. 1984–2000. The History of the University of Oxford. 8 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Cobban, Alan B. 1988. The Medieval English Universities: Oxford and Cambridge to c. 1500. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Halsey, A. H. 1992. Decline of Donnish Dominion : The British Academic Professions in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Newman, John Henry, ed.  1976. The Idea of a University: Defined and Illustrated, ed. I. T. Ker. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Pantin, W. A. 1972. Oxford Life in Oxford Archives. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Shattock, Michael. 1994. The UGC and the Management of British Universities. Buckingham, U.K.: Open University Press and the Society for Research into Higher Education.
- Symonds, Richard. 1986. Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? New York: St. Martin’s Press.
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