The history of student life: your questions answered

What was life like for early university students? When did the new universities open? When were women allowed to go to university? Felicity Day answers common questions about what university life was like for our ancestors

Women students at Girton College, Cambridge, c.1900

What was life like for early university students?

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In the 18th century, students at Oxford and Cambridge universities were mainly men from aristocratic families. Studying was certainly an undemanding experience. Lectures were scarce and supervision casual, leaving undergraduates to do as much or as little as they pleased. Since failure in the exams was virtually unheard of, it was usually the latter.

Tests at Cambridge were more thorough after the introduction of the ‘Senate House’ written examination in 1780, but were notoriously farcical at Oxford until 1800. ‘Cheat sheets’ were circulated between students. According to former student Vicesimus Knox, the examiner and candidate could simply “converse on the last drinking-bout, or on horses, or read the newspaper, or a novel” until the appropriate time had passed, because the supervisory exams officer rarely entered the room.

Sons of aristocrats did not even need to trouble themselves with that little effort. So-called ‘term trotters’ only had to live in college for a certain number of terms to come away with a degree. “The higher a young man’s rank is, the more he is suffered to be idle and vicious in our universities,” observers lamented, pointing to students who chose hunting, horse-racing, drinking and gambling over lectures and libraries.

The higher a young man’s rank is, the more he is suffered to be idle and vicious in our universities

When were the new universities formed?

As the Victorian era loomed, new options emerged south of the border. Granted a royal charter in 1836, the University of London was initially just a degree-awarding body. It examined students from University College – the “godless institution in Gower Street” (now better known as University College London or UCL), which opened in 1828 for those of all religions and none – and its Anglican rival, King’s College. Anxious to differentiate themselves from ‘Oxbridge’, their fees were within reach of the moneyed middle classes at about £26 a year; they provided tuition in ‘modern’ subjects like chemistry, physics, history and foreign languages; expected students to attend five hours of classes a day, six days a week; and offered so many lectures that University College was denounced as a “lecture-bazaar”.

After 1858 the University of London was also able to award degrees to (male) students taught at colleges in the provinces. Owens College in Manchester, founded in 1851, paved the way for similar institutions in cities such as Bristol, Leeds and Aberystwyth, which sprung up in the 1870s. These so-called ‘civic’ colleges often focused heavily on science, technology and engineering, with part-time and evening tuition aimed at local professional families, and driven by the needs of local industry. By 1909, seven of them were universities in their own right.

Students at Oxford University in 1866
Students at Oxford University in 1866
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When were women allowed to go to university?

They first obtained university-level tuition in the late 1840s, with the foundation of London’s Queen’s College – initially for aspiring teachers and governesses – and its rival Bedford College, founded by Elizabeth Jesser Reid to save women from “the dreary futility” of their lives.

As early as 1856 they were petitioning the University of London for permission to sit its degree exams, but it was not until 1868 that a ‘Special Examination for Women’ was approved, with questions as eclectic as “extract the square root of 384524.01” and “draw a plan of the city of Rome”. It was another 10 years before women could sit the same exams as men or obtain a degree.

The first women’s residential college at Cambridge was established in 1869 – “that infidel place”, as a resentful clergyman described Girton College – it was not until 1881 that female students could sit the university exams, and not until 1884 at Oxford. They were refused degrees until 1920 at Oxford and 1948 at Cambridge.

What was life like for the first women university students?

By that time, classes at some of the civic colleges were already co-educational, although women were hampered by both social conventions and misogyny. They had to be chaperoned at lectures, and were subject to a “chilly” segregation, as Mary Adamson who studied science at UCL in the 1880s recalled. She had to enter and exit lectures through a back door, and was refused admission to the chemistry class on the flimsiest of pretences – that women would be “scarred for life and have their clothes burnt off them as the men threw chemicals around”.

Separate entrances also prevailed in Manchester at that time, where “it would have been the height of impropriety to enter the library” according to one female student. She was expected to send a maid to collect books.

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Discover the full version of this article and many more stories from the past in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine October 2020