History of British Universities

From what my unenlightened American mind understands of the British educational system, when one of the Queen’s subjects attends university he must pick a single subject and take classes in that subject alone until he graduates.

This is of course very different from the American system, where usually only a certain percentage of classes are in the student’s major.

But it also seems rather different from the medieval universities, where the “Seven Liberal Arts” were studied by all.

So, when and how did things change?

It is the case that UK degrees largely consist of a single subject. One graduates with a degree in mathematics, or english literature, or physics etc. - no such thing as a ‘major’ or a liberal arts degree in our structure.
It’s not quite as montheistic as it sounds - often the first year can be given over to a more broad range of subjects, (and most science degrees will feature a dedicated maths course in the first year) but that will narrow quite quickly.

There didn’t used to be any such thing as ‘credits’, either, but that has changed. I used to teach at a Scottish university and the whole curriculum underwent a massive re-structuring to a credit-based system. I believe that will allow students to hop around subjects more easily.

I don’t know when this system solidified - the great medieval universities of the UK (Oxford, Cambridge, Hull) were followed by red-brick universities becoming established in the late 1800s. Our modern degree system must have its roots in that time.

The first university school was Medicine, and that was what you expect.
Since that was it, they couldn’t only accept graduates, now could they ?

So perhaps the discussion of "They only do subjects in their major " is stemming out of Medicine as an undergraduate enrollment… and same with law?

In history there were many different small campuses for the various subjects around the UK, so that may also contribute to narrow fields of study for degrees.

But these days you will find the science and other vocations are probably forced to do a general elective from outside of their field (school, faculty )…

I had a look at a psychology course, due to someone else asking about the subject choices, and I saw that they said
“Note: You must choose one subject that is outside of sciences and psychology.”

Then it suggested that some majors will HAVE to do " Art - Microscope usage" for that subject … with the note "This subject is deemed to be Arts because we stuck an ARTS code on it… ". Well they phrased it in some BS professional way. Yep they said the subject was arts in order to trick the computers into passing it as “outside of science”.)

:confused: The University of Hull traces its roots roots all the way back to 1927.

Until well into the 19th century (when various “Redbricks” were founded: I think Durham, was first, in 1832, then London in 1836, with most major cities acquiring universities by the end of the century), the only universities in England were Oxford and Cambridge. Scotland, however, had a number of universities with longer histories: St Andrews (the oldest I think, going back to the early 15th century), Edinburgh, Glasgow, and I think Aberdeen.

I am not exactly sure of the answer to the OP’s question, but I do know that there was a major university reform movement, including curriculum reform, in England (it is important to distinguish the English and Scottish situations here, as the systems were quite separate and different) in the early 19th century. This was connected with the coming of the Redbricks, but began earlier, I think in Cambridge in the 1820s. One of the leading figures in the movement was William Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and University Vice-Chancellor* (the Wikipedia entry on Whewell downplays his role in university reform to an extent that I suspect is thoroughly misleading). Up to this time, the English universities had been overwhelmingly concerned with preparing students for a career in the Anglican clergy, and an important aspect of the reforms was to introduce more natural science and mathematics into the curriculum (Whewell began his career as a math professor). Although there had been professors of mathematics and various natural sciences in the English universities since medieval times, there was, before the 19th century, little incentive (beyond personal interest) for any undergraduates to study these subjects. Notoriously, when Isaac Newton was professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, in the 17th century, he often lectured to an empty room.

The Scottish universities, however, had been more science oriented for quite some time, and Edinburgh, in particular, was dominated by its medical school, long considered the best in Europe. I believe American undergraduate education was largely modeled on the Scottish, not the English universities (and when American universities developed graduate schools,in the later 19th century, their model was the German university system).

I doubt, however, that the medieval trivium and quadrivium (or “seven liberal arts”) were still in force in England up to the 19th century. For one thing, I believe that there were also major university reforms in England at the time of the English Civil War (17th century). I have an idea Wadham College, Oxford played a large role at this time.

*Note that in Britain, it is the Vice-Chancellor who actually runs a university. The Chancellor is a figurehead, often a member of the royal family or similar.

I think it’s a Blackadder joke…

No, medicine was not the first subject taught at the universities in England. The medieval curriculum was the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Medicine only came on the scene as a university area of study much later.

Same with law. To learn English law, one attended the Inns of Court, not a university. Law as a university subject came later.

Actually the first university of the middle ages is said to have developed out of a tradition of medical teaching (initially on an informal basis, I think) at Bologna in Italy. I believe there was also some legal education (as well as medical) that went on in many medieval universities. It is true that one did not qualify as a licensed lawyer by going to university, but neither do you now.

However, it is true that most students, by far, at medieval universities were hoping to qualify for careers in the church, and studied the “seven liberal arts” curriculum (and, if they went on to higher studies, philosophy - which included natural philosophy, covering the aspects of knowledge we now call science - and theology). As I mentioned in my earlier post, in early 19th century England it was still the case that most undergraduates were studying towards a career in the church, and, in fact, you could not normally become a don unless you were an ordained Anglican minister.*

I think, though, that it is a mistake in general to imagine that the medieval universities were always firmly locked into the “seven liberal arts” curriculum. That may have been the norm, but there would have been a lot of curricular variation from place to place and time to time, and even at the level of individual students and teachers. Remember, medieval universities were small and relatively informal institutions by modern standards, and we are talking about many institutions, in different countries, existing over a period of many centuries. Things were not the same everywhere or at all times.


*Although an exception to this rule had already been made in Cambridge back in the 17th century for Isaac Newton, who refused to take holy orders due to his eccentric religious views, but whose greatness as a mathematician was recognized by the university well before his major scientific discoveries were announced.

The early American universities were like the British universities of the same time. There were no majors, just a single course of study. They, like the British universities, were mostly thought of as preparation for becoming a minister. They began the movement toward something like modern universities before the British ones did. By 1832, when there were still only two universities in England and four in Scotland, there were dozens of them in the U.S. Splitting the studies into a variety of majors happened in the U.S. before in the U.K. The courses offered began tending more toward natural science and less towards humanities. Engineering, not even thought of as an academic subject before then, became a common major.

From the 1830’s to the 1930’s though, the real leader in university education was Germany. In the early twentieth century, it was still common for Americans (and I think for other English speakers) to do their graduate work in Germany. Indeed, the necessity for a graduate degree to teach at a university level began in Germany. By the early twentieth century, Germans had created new fields of study, particularly in social sciences. American universities began modeling themselves more after the German model than the British one. German professors had already began leaving Germany around the beginning of the twentieth century for positions at universities in other countries, and in the 1930’s a flood of them decided that it would be a good idea to get out of their country. Since then American universities have been the standard model for the universities of the world.

My doctoral instructor (who knew quite a lot about this sort of stuff), once told me that the American university system arose from grafting a German graduate education system onto a Scottish undergraduate system. There was no formal graduate level education in America before Johns Hopkins was founded in 1876. The real explosion in both numbers and quality of US higher education comes after that, after the Civil War. Before that time, America scarcely had a university system (what there was was mostly based on the Scottish model, though). With the (very) partial exceptions of Harvard and Princeton, no American college could come close in academic reputation to a European university (not even the English universities, which were crap by European standards in the 18th and early 19th centuries, certainly not the German or Scottish ones).

It is indeed an important point that universities did not stick rigidly to the trivium and the quadrivium. But whatever may originally been the case elsewhere, Oxford and Cambridge operated on the principle that all students started with a general course centred around the reading of Latin texts, which gained them first a B.A. and then an M.A. Only then did some of them (usually only a minority) proceed to the higher degrees in theology, law (i.e. canon law) or medicine. That most did not proceed beyond the M.A. was true even for those who went on to become clergymen.

What happened during the nineteenth century was that it began to become possible to get the B.A. by instead studying other subjects, including those which had previously been available only as higher degrees. So the number of subjects gradually expanded. Moreover, as more subjects were hived off, the original B.A. course evolved into what was essentially a degree in Classics.

Other English (and Welsh) universities often mimicked Oxbridge. But because none of them were founded until the nineteenth century, by which time even Oxford and Cambridge had started to move towards separate subjects, it was easier for them to adopt that model from the outset.

The Scottish universities were different because they preserved the idea of a two-stage degree and so made students study several subjects before specialising. That was partly because historically Scottish students tended to start university at a slightly younger age than their English counterparts.

Captain Blackadder uncovers a German spy.

However, the law that was taught in the medieval period onwards, in both the English and continental universities, was the canon law and civil law (i.e., based on roman law). The English universities did not teach the common law at all. It wasn’t that you went to the Inns of Court for licensing as a lawyer; you went there to learn the common law, and then to be called to the bar. I don’t think the English universities began to actually teach English law until the 19th century.

To become a Barrister. To become an attorney or a solicitor required different training procedures. As it is while you could technically be admitted as a student into one of the Inns of Court directly, many were admitted after having been at Oxbridge. Sir Thomas More for instance. And they were often holding degrees in. Canon law.

Maybe, but that is not what you said before.

The newer English universities do in fact have a system of minor and major subjects. They may also offer solo degrees, but even then not all the courses taken will be in that subject, though most will.

I studied a joint honours programme at a UK university, but within in that programme I was able to take multiple modules from across the spectrum of disciplines.

In fact, in the first year it was very strongly recommended to take a module from outside your main degree… our philosophy lectures were filled with physicists, lawyers, engineers etc who would earn 10-20 credit points for completing that module.

Well yes, over recent decades UK universities have moved a long way toward something much more like the American system. It used not to be that way, however.

When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, at a large university offering a wide range of degree specialisms, I had exactly zero choice as to what courses I took. I was registered for a degree in biochemistry. My courses were:
1st year: Biochemistry; Organic chemistry; physiology.
2nd year: Biochemistry, Inorganic and Physical Chemistry
3rd year: Biochemistry.
Some of the other universities I applied to or considered had a little more flexibility in their Biochemistry programs, in that they offered a choice between either physiology or microbiology in the first year (others may have required microbiology, and not offered physiology). That was about it.

People specializing (“majoring” as Americans might say) in certain other subjects might have had a little more choice, but not all that much more. There were such things a “joint degrees” where you had two main specialisms (generally quite closely related - for instance my sister had done English Literature with Latin American Literature back in the '60s) but you were still locked in to mainly courses in your “major” subjects and a limited range,and limited choice, of closely related ones. (Also, I think “joint degrees” were looked on as a bit new fangled and intellectually questionable by many academics.) My case may have been at the extreme, but not very far to the extreme. This sort of specialism and lack of course choice (once you had chosen a main subject area) was entirely the norm in British universities back then. (Furthermore, you already had to specialize in just 3 or 4 A-level subjects, if you were preparing for university, in your last two years of high school. I think that is still the case.)

I think the OP is asking how this system, with its very high level of specialization and low level of course choice compared to the American system, arose in British higher education (and perhaps also how the much less narrowly focused specialization of teh American system arose). The fact that Britain has now moved closer to the American system to some extent is neither here nor there. Most British undergraduate degrees certainly used to be very narrowly specialized, with little if any course choice within a program. (Unfortunately, no-one has really given the answer yet, just various bits of background context. I know a bit about the history of higher education in both Britain and the USA, but I do not know the direct answer to this one.)

Bristol offered some sort of double major system in the 1990s. My brother graduated in 1990 with bachelors’ in Accounting and something weird like Public Health.

The answer is that all universities in all countries started with just a single course of study. It was only later that they began offering different subjects that one could major in. All universities in all countries started with each course of study having no options. It was only later that they began offering optional courses, some of which were outside the major course of study. These changes just happened earlier in the U.S. than in the U.K.

Why this happened earlier in the U.S. is another question. Partly it was the British attitude toward higher education. It took them until 1832 to realized that they needed more than two universities in all of England. There was a feeling that a university education was something so special that it was obvious that only a small percentage of people could handle it, so they only needed a small number of universities and a small number of majors, with no optional courses. Partly it’s the American attitude that there should always be options offered for everything. Furthermore, by about 1900, American educators considered that the British education system wasn’t even the one they wanted to model themselves after. By then they decided that the American universities shouldn’t be like the British ones, with Oxford and Cambridge at the top and a small number of others just below it. Like the universities in Germany (and elsewhere in the continent) which they began to think of as their models, there was no such fixed hierarchy, so they could open new universities at any time. And like those universities, they could offer a more diverse set of majors.

My English Redbrick university in the 1970s offered probably scores of “majors”, with each department providing several different courses of study, many to students “majoring” in different departments. The difference was not a lack of diversity of subjects and courses, the difference was that students were very restricted in the amount of mixing and matching of courses that they could do. It was largely (in my case, completely) laid down for them.

The specialization this forced on most students (and which in fact began began in high school at age 16) was by design, incidentally. In those days , at least, a British B.A. or B.Sc. degree, which took three years, would get you to about the same level in your specialist subject as an American student would reach after a 4 year bachelor’s degree and then a (more focused) Master’s. The British student, however, would not have the sort of breadth of education that an American one would have (unless they acquired it by private reading). Which way is “better” is a value judgement, though,as I said, in more recent years the British system has moved towards something more like the American one.

Incidentally, when you start talking about hierarchy between different institutions, the American system is a lot more stratified now than the British, and American students and parents care a lot more more about which university they go to than British ones do. There is a lot more difference between Harvard and Podunk State (at least in the minds of American students, parents, and employers), and a lot more gradations of difference, than there is between Oxbridge and, say Leeds Trinity (a former college of education that has recently been upgraded to university status). (I speak as a parent whose daughter has just recently finished the application processes for several Ivy Leagues and other high status US universities.)