The universities that arose in Europe in the middle ages bore little resemblance to those in ancient Athens and Carthage. The culture of the medieval period—characterized by its guilds, rituals, and traveling scholars—made the first European schools of higher learning, the "studium generale," unique institutions in every way. England's contribution to the great universities that dotted the landscape of Europe in the twelfth century was Oxford University in Oxford, a southcentral English town.
Many of Oxford's first students and scholars were disaffected University of Paris members. In particular, these students and scholars abandoned Paris during times of crisis in 1167 and 1229, streaming into Oxford, according to scholars Joseph R. Strayer and Elisabeth Leedham-Green. Enough students enrolled thatt Oxford expanded to establish residential lodgings in the thirteenth century. These first residential colleges were called University, Balliol, and Merton. The first English secular colleges were designed for senior scholars, the equivalent of graduate scholars today. The admittance of undergraduates or lesser scholars was a late phenomenon in England, usually associated by scholars with the chartering of the royal College of the King's Hall, Cambridge, in 1337, although its origins predate the charter by some two decades. King's Hall soon offered studies to a range of scholars ranging from the neophyte undergraduate to the scholar with numerous years of study to his credit.
At Oxford, as at the first schools of higher learning in other nations of Europe, these poor scholars were basically in the employ of students, and students exercised power over their teachers until the faculty eventually gained the upper hand over their students. The power balance shifted suddenly when students allowed scholars to select which of their peers were worthy of receiving teaching licenses; the scholars then formed their own guilds, much as workers in other established professions had done.
These early students were no more mature than the students of the present day were—less so more likely. According to Wrongs of Passage, they hazed newcomers viciously, rubbing their noses into grindstones or making them drink unspeakable concoctions, and they, in their gowns, fought against local towns people. A 1354 riot at Oxford began over a disagreement about a vintage of wine and resulted in students dying and suffering grim injuries. Until late in the nineteenth century, the successful public school graduate then advanced to Cambridge or Oxford, or in some cases sought an education abroad. Three prestigious Scottish universities, St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, came into being during the fifteenth century.
During the nineteenth century, for a time, Cambridge or Oxford developed a reputation for being less serious about studies than the universities in Scotland, and some dons failed to meet their teaching obligations. Cambridge and Oxford found the label of expensive social clubs they were branded with to be as hard to shake as it was offensive to serious students and scholars at these institutions.
Potential university students received other options late in the nineteenth century when schools of higher education were established in London, Leeds, Durham, and Manchester. Finally, women achieved a significant breakthrough in 1869, as Girton College in Cambridge announced the acceptance of female applicants.
In England, all the early universities were put into being by a Royal Charter or government statute. The Privy Council, an advisory body that counsels the Queen with permission from the Orders in Council, grants royal charters and permits the incorporation of universities.
Perhaps the liveliest era in the development of higher education opportunities for the greatest number of citizens took place in England's major cities during the early years of the twentieth century. From that start, with just 10 universities in 1910, there was growing enthusiasm for additional colleges and universities in other industrial cities.
The last 30 years of the twentieth century have seen a massive explosion in the number of UK residents choosing to go on to college. The nature of higher education in the United Kingdom has changed significantly over the past 30 years. The number of students studying at universities and colleges has increased dramatically. In the 1960s, there were around 200,000 full-time students. This has risen to more than 1 million students in 2001, as older students increasingly attend college for the first time or return to college to complete degree studies begun many years earlier.
Including part-time students, there are 1.7 million undergraduate and postgraduate students in UK universities and colleges as of 2001. Close to 30 percent of full-time undergraduate students are aged 21 or older when they take their first classes, representing a far older student body from just 1970. Approximately one-third of all 21-year-old adults have attended some college or obtained a college degree, with Scotland demonstrating the highest percentage among all UK nations.
In the United Kingdom, there are 111 institutions with university status and 60 institutions categorized as higher education colleges. These include Ireland, with 2 universities and 2 higher education colleges; Scotland, with 13 universities and 7 higher education colleges; Wales, with 9 universities and 4 higher education colleges; and England, with 87 universities and 47 colleges. United Kingdom institutions of higher education are estimated to employ around 100,000 full-time staff and more than 14,000 part-time academic adjuncts.
Funding bodies of each UK nation work directly with other educational bureaucracies such as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the UK universities, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, Higher Education Wales, Standing Conference of Principals, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency, according to the Higher Education Funding Agency for England. UK universities also operate with widely differing missions, serving the needs of the United Kingdom's very diverse peoples and providing degrees from accredited institutions. One change under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 was the conversion of polytechnic schools of higher learning to the higher status title of universities. These former polytechnics, therefore, were linked in association with previously existing "older" universities founded in the mid-twentieth century, as well as the ancient schools at Cambridge and Oxford, plus the civic universities chartered in major English cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Enrollments at the universities in England vary dramatically from institution to institution. The University of Abertay Dundee, a smaller institution, enrolls 4,000 students. Manchester Metropolitan University, a large school, enrolls 28,000 students. The University of London's 16 schools enroll around 100,000 students.
A single university operates as a purely private institution sustained by private funds. This is the University of Buckingham, offering courses in business, industry, and management, on its multiple campuses.
The United Kingdom's higher education colleges are extremely hard to characterize, so greatly differing as they are in enrollment, mission, and curriculum offerings that include some 30,000 undergraduate courses. Their sizes range from a few hundred students to the massive Southampton Institute with 13,000 students in 2001. Their offerings are as diverse as agriculture, art and design, modern dance, theater, and nursing.
Students pursuing their first-degree course usually attend classes full time for three years in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. So-called Sandwich or work-study courses, which include real-world internships or job assignments, take four years to complete, as do certain specialist courses. Professional degrees in medicine, dentistry, and veterinary studies generally require five years of study. In Scotland undergraduates may earn a three-year general degree or a four-year honors degree. Some of the first degrees awarded by higher education institutions include the Bachelor of Arts or BA, the Bachelor of Science or BSc, or the Bachelor of Education or BEd.
Many higher education colleges trace their respective founding back to the nineteenth century and a good deal of them were started as church-related colleges. Since 1988, with the passage of an Education Reform Act, all colleges became independent; previously all had been under the governance of a central bureaucracy, the Local Education Authorities (LEA). All colleges are now self-governing and independent. Some colleges were founded up to 150 years ago, and a significant number were established as Church Colleges. Some higher education colleges award degrees, and some offer degrees validated by a university or national accrediting body.
Since 1970, Parliament and the respective funding bodies have made the education of minorities and peoples from lower socioeconomic groups a priority. Universities UK has identified several missions of higher education. These are, "to enable people to develop their capabilities and fulfill their potential, both personally and at work," and "to contribute to an economically successful and culturally diverse nation to advance knowledge and understanding through scholarship and research."
Distance Learning: The Open University (OU) in 1997 served some 164,000 students with an extensive number of course offerings from which to choose. OU commenced operations as a correspondence school in 1969, also offering some courses that were televised. Unlike other institutions of higher education, OU has no specific entrance requirements and classes are open to all unless filled. The school offers undergraduate and graduate courses. In 1997, the average student's age was 37.
Other distance learning opportunities are expected to proliferate in the twenty-first century as more universities see the financial benefits of offering programs. The University of the West of England, Bristol, for example, offers what it terms a "Virtual Campus."
Northern Ireland: The Protestants of Ulster of Presbyterian background, with certain notable exceptions, preferred to pursue their higher education in Scotland, rather than accept the dominion of the established faith.
Presbyterians opened a state school in Belfast, Ireland, called the Belfast Academical Institution in 1814. The state contributed funding for a time but halted to display disapproval when Presbyterians refused or were reluctant to send Presbyterian ministers to study in other British schools outside Ireland as the government wished. The institution, known for a time as the Royal Belfast Academical College, closed after some 40 years in operation, unable to compete with a newly established royal school in Belfast. The Belfast Academical Institution was taken over as a grammar school and is affectionately referred to as "the Inst," for short.
Scotland: While the Scottish people in the nineteenth century put a high premium on higher education, their own history was ignored in the schools until professors of Scottish history were established at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, according to T.M. Devine. Nonetheless, the quality of the five Scottish universities was a source of national pride, and students from England and Northern Ireland frequently enrolled in these schools. Some of the luster has dropped off the schools by 2000, however, notes Devine, and educators began looking at Scots universities with a more critical eye.
A close inspection of higher education in Scotland was provided by the Garrick Report of 1997. It pointed to some major differences between Scottish universities and other UK institutions. For example, it noted that students are accepted to the school in a broader category than are students in England who apply to departments. Consequently, they find it easier to change majors. At older universities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, the first degree is an "M.A." and not a "B.A." There is an ordinary three-year degree or a four-year honors degree option available to students. There is a strong consensus that the M.A. degree, or at least the three-year degree program, should be renamed the B.A. degree to avoid confusion.
Wales: Like Northern Ireland and Scotland, the principality of Wales is the latest United Kingdom nation to independently establish an education council to oversee post-16 (higher) education and teacher training, plus serve as the higher education funding council. As a concession to Wales' bilingual (English and Welsh) status, the new National Council for Education and Training in Wales functions under the catchall title of ELWa; its English meaning is Education and Learning Wales, and its Welsh meaning is "to gain benefit from."
The new funding council relies heavily on an agency called Higher Education Wales (HEW), founded in 1996; its predecessor was the Heads of Higher Education in Wales. The members are the individual heads of all universities and higher education colleges in Wales. Serving them, as of May 2000 was an office located in Cardiff, Wales, with a full-time professional staff serving as an expert resource team. The office attempts to assist citizens of Wales from media to assembly to students and faculty. It retains a strong working relationship as a member of Universities UK, and it, therefore, attempts to deal with educational matters of concern to all United Kingdom nations.
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