A History of Higher Education in the UK

Today, education in the UK is widely recognized as one of the best ones in the world. The United Kingdom is home to dozens of worldwide famous colleges and universities. But, not many know that the history of higher education in the UK goes back to ancient times.

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The First Universities

Education, in one form or another, seems to always have been there. From the ancient ages, people recognized the importance of education and strived for knowledge. And the UK is not an exception.

The formal history of education in the UK dates back to the Saxon settlement. That’s when between 597 ad 604, the settlers established the first cathedral schools in England. However, when it comes to higher education, its history began significantly later.

Until the 19th century, there were only a few successful universities in the UK. The first university that was established in the UK is the University of Oxford. The exact date of the establishment of this university is still unknown. However, experts believe that it was established somewhere between 1096 and 1167, making it the second oldest higher education facility in the world after the University of Bologna that was founded in 1088. Though it is the oldest school in the country, it still holds the title of one of the most prestigious in the world.

Apart from the University of Oxford, a few other schools were founded and became successful before the 19th century. These include:

  • University of Cambridge – located in England and founded between 1209 and 1226;
  • University of St. Andrews – located in Scotland and founded between 1410 and 1413;
  • University of Glasgow – located in Scotland and founded in 1451;
  • University of Aberdeen – located in Scotland and founded between 1495 and 1505;
  • University of Edinburgh – located in Scotland and founded in 1583;
  • Marischal College – located in Scotland and founded between 1593 and 1860, the first college in the UK.

These all were the first higher education facilities ever established in the United Kingdom. Each of them was founded and operated under the royal charter, which is a formal grant provided by a monarch. Together, they put a start to the history of higher education in the country.

The Educational Revolution of the 19th Century

Before the 19th century, there were only a few schools that delivered higher education. However, during this century, the history of higher education in the UK was changing rapidly.

All the first schools and universities in the UK were sponsored by the Church of England. However, in the 19th century, the UK’s government established free, compulsory education for everyone.

There was another big change. Earlier, universities were highly religious, meaning that their doors were open only to people of a certain religion. However, when the University College London was established in 1826, everything’s changed. This facility became the country’s first secular college that would welcome students of all (and even none) religions. Soon, another school, the King’s College London, has also followed the lead and made education available for everyone regardless of religion.

Throughout the 19th century, the world has seen a few other prestigious universities, including Durham University and the University of London. And, by the end of the century, also were founded the so-called “redbrick” public universities that are so famous today.

Finally, one more major event that occurred in the history of higher education in the UK during the 19th century is the establishment of:

  • Lady Margaret Hall;
  • Bedford College;
  • Girton College;
  • Somerville College.

After these schools were founded, women in the United Kingdom were finally able to obtain a university degree just like men.

From the 19th Century to Present Days

After so many massive changes in the structure and format of higher education in the UK that took place during the 19th century, further progress went down pretty fast.

In the 20th century, over 40 new universities and colleges were established in the UK, followed by 50+ new facilities that were founded in the 21st century. Colleges and universities were becoming more and more accessible to all groups of people regardless of age, gender, religion, and other factors.

At this point, there is a total of 165 higher education institutions located in the United Kingdom. As was mentioned earlier, now, the UK’s higher education is known for its excellent quality and prestige, while the country’s universities annually take high spots in global rankings.

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