Past Talks

Home of Lost Causes & Forsaken Beliefs – History of Oxford University

Date: 19th February 2018
Speaker: Chris Day

History of Oxford University – Chris Day

The university emerged slowly in the middle ages at a time when two models were established.  The university in Bologna, founded in 1088, was run by the students, most of whom were lawyers.  In Paris, the university was headed by teaching masters who, together with senior administrators, formed a parliament.  Oxford was based on the Paris model.  For the majority of its nine-hundred-year history the university has been private, only receiving government funding from the 20th century.

The oldest document in the university archives is an award of 1214 which gave the university privileges, a chancellor and administrators. At this time, the student body numbered approximately 1000 men. 

Student accommodation was centred around High Street/King Edward Street.  Teaching masters rented property, sub-let to students and gave lectures on the premises.  From the 1250s hostels appeared accommodating a very small number of graduates in each.  Colleges started approximately 150 years after the university and became increasingly important. These were large, wealthy establishments housed in buildings set around a quadrangle that admitted under-graduates for the first time.  They were set up by individuals such as William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, who founded New College in 1379.  Historically, the university was relatively poor in contrast to the wealthy colleges. The university and colleges were, and remain, separate institutions with clearly demarcated roles.  The university admits students, provides a central library and awards degrees.  Up until the 1990s, the vice-chancellor of the university was the head of a college.

The Divinity Schools were erected by the university between 1427 and 1483 as a statement, although their construction was hampered by a lack of funds.  By the 15th century Oxford had become a university town with a commercial element. 

Christ Church College, built 1525-9, marked the beginning of expansion.  The university had taken over the city centre – Sheldonian Theatre 1669, Old Ashmolean Museum 1683, Clarendon Building 1713. 

The university became a base for science with significant work taking place in the 17th century.  However, by the 18th century the quality of teaching had declined, and many students were forced to resort to private tutoring.  From 1581 to 1855 prospective students had to swear an oath to the Church of England.  Non-conformist tended to succeed in industry, e.g. Rowntrees, Cadburys.

Despite falling admissions of new students, down from 400+ in 1610 to 180 in 1750, the university’s building campaign continued (e.g. Radcliffe Camera).  Money was being spent on buildings rather than education.

The 19th century saw the move to a modern university engaged in research.  The Ashmolean Museum was the base for humanities research and the Museum of Natural History (built 1855-60) promoted the sciences, which drive the university now. 

Female students were admitted to Lady Margaret Hall in 1879, although degrees were not awarded until 1920.  Females now make up 50% of the student population.

As the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford is a unique and historic institution which continues to thrive after nine hundred years.