1880-2020: A Forgotten Anniversary

This post has been contributed by Professor John Taylor, based at the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.

Amidst the understandable preoccupation with Covid 19, an important anniversary for higher education has been forgotten.  On 20 April 1880, Queen Victoria signed the charter for the creation of the Victoria University and, on 14 July 1880, the University was formally inaugurated at a meeting of the University Court.  In effect, 140 years ago, Manchester gained a university for the first time.

A Medical School had existed in Manchester since 1824 and Owens College had been founded in 1851, but neither had university status. The Manchester Guardian (14 July 1880) wrote: “One of the most important events in the history of the city – an event which has also a national significance – is being celebrated today.”

The events of 1880 marked the end of a period of vigorous debate over the proposed new university, debates that shed light on the position of English higher education at the time.  At the start of the 1870s, there were four universities in England: Oxford, Cambridge, London and Durham.  A university for Manchester had been suggested before, but the idea  gathered support in the 1870s.  By that time, Owens College had successfully established itself as a teaching institution and had begun to gain a strong reputation for research in certain branches of science. In the absence of degree-awarding powers, however, most students went on to take examinations set by the University of London.  As Owens College grew in self-confidence, academic staff became increasingly frustrated by the controls exerted from London.  As a result, in the summer of 1876, members of the College Senate produced a pamphlet calling for the creation of a University of Manchester based on Owens College.

The pamphlet provoked widespread discussion and raised fundamental questions about the future of higher education.  Central to the debate was a simple question: what is a university?  Was it purely a body to examine students and to award qualifications? Or, was it, as Owens College advocated, a body that both taught students and examined them?  Underlying these questions were also issues of academic freedom for academic staff to set their own curriculum to reflect personal specialisms and also to meet local and regional priorities.

The John Owens Building in Manchester, built in 1873

However, the proposals from Owens College provoked a second fundamental question: how many universities were needed in England?  In the 1870s, it was widely accepted that the country needed to expand the opportunities for higher education, to meet growing demands from an expanding population and to help resist increasing international economic competition. However, for many observers, this did not necessarily mean that more universities were required.  Indeed, there was a widely held concern that more universities would erode standards and serve to devalue degrees. Developments in the United States were often quoted as evidence of how an increasing number of universities had undermined the value of a degree.  As a result, various alternatives were put forward intended to avoid the establishment of a new university in Manchester.  One was for a reformed relationship between Owens College and the University of London; another was for the affiliation of Owens College with either Oxford or Cambridge Universities.  These were not really realistic options, given the strength of feelings in Manchester, but they did illustrate the issues at stake.

As the debate continued, the focus of opposition shifted from the old universities to the towns and colleges elsewhere in the North of England.  New colleges, often modelled on Owens College, were emerging in Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Nottingham.  Owens College had from the outset opened the way to the possible affiliation of other colleges to the proposed new University. However, in particular, the Yorkshire College of Science, in Leeds, founded in 1874, was unhappy that the creation of a new University of Manchester would jeopardise its own development and would result in an over-dominance of Owens College.  In Liverpool, discussions were also moving forward about the development of their own college and similar fears grew that this would be disadvantaged by a new University of Manchester. An influential deputation to the Privy Council was organised in May 1878 to oppose the award of university status to Owens College. 

As a result, the debate moved on and began to focus on alternative models for the establishment of a federal university for the North of England.  Owens College continued to argue that new colleges, once they had become established, could be affiliated to the proposed University of Manchester.  However, the Yorkshire College argued for the establishment of an entirely new body which would be based in Manchester and to which Owens College would become the first member; the Yorkshire College also objected that the name “University of Manchester” would convey a false impression for an institution intended to serve the whole of the North. In the end, Owens College conceded on both points.  A new University was established, the Victoria University; Owens College became the first, and initially only, member of the University, to be followed by the University College Liverpool in 1884 and the Yorkshire College in 1887.

At first sight, it may appear that Owens College had failed to meet its objectives.  The Victoria University developed as an “examining university”, with teaching undertaken in the Colleges, not totally unlike the University of London, and they had given way on questions of governance and name. However, the reality was rather different.  The Victoria University was firmly based in Manchester, the Principal of Owens College became its first Vice Chancellor, and, at least initially, Owens College would be the only member institution, able to shape issues of governance, curriculum and assessment.  For all intents and purposes, Owens College had achieved its independence, and Manchester had gained its University.

It is also important to understand the wider significance of the establishment of the Victoria University. The discussions represented a significant challenge to the establishment view of higher education in the late nineteenth century.  The proposed university not only brought higher education to the North of England, it was also explicitly intended to open up new opportunities for the middle classes, and even the upper echelons of the working class, to enter higher education.  Less explicit, but nonetheless real, were also the clear expectations underlying the new University that opportunities for higher education would also be available for women.  Further, the idea of a university social experience based around the residential college as a necessary corollary to academic study was challenged; instead, the picture of the student combining study with living at home and ongoing contact with business and industry was favoured by many of the supporters of the Victoria University.  Moreover, the University would pursue research across all subjects, alongside teaching and assessment of students.  These changes would evolve in future years, but the debates over the Victoria University had questioned old ideas of higher education and would have a significant long-term impact.

Issues of regional and local identity were also apparent throughout the discussions.  At one level, there were questions about how ‘the North’ was perceived.  A number of highly disparaging attitudes towards the need for higher education in the ‘provinces’ were expressed and some critics questioned whether it was appropriate to locate a university in a Northern industrial town.  At another level, despite persistent denials, it is clear that there were strong rivalries between civic and academic leaders across the North, between Manchester and Liverpool, between Manchester and the towns of the West Riding, especially Leeds, and more generally between Lancashire and Yorkshire.  There was a widespread recognition, and indeed admiration, for the achievements of Owens College, but this did not prompt any willingness to accept perceived institutional subservience; on the contrary, there was a broad desire to emulate and compete. In achieving a final agreement, such rivalries were, to some degree, put aside, but their underlying strength did not augur well for the prospects of a federal institution to represent diverse industrial communities across the North.

The debates over the Victoria University also helped to place a new focus on the importance of science teaching in higher education.  Both Owens College and the Yorkshire College had built their reputations around scientific teaching. However, what was also noticeable was the desire to create in the Victoria University a fully ‘rounded’ university, with strengths in the arts, applied science and medicine, as well as in science. The supporters of the Victoria University argued strongly that their institution should meet the broad needs of its region, for education and social advancement as well as for economic success.  Whilst not expressing the idea in an explicit way, the advocates of the Victoria University were, in effect, outlining the idea of a broadly-based civic university that would dominate English higher education for the century ahead. Indeed, in the years ahead, many of the leading members of the Victoria University would play a leading role in helping to broaden and deepen the ideas that would come to characterise  the civic university (see, for example,  H S Jones, T F Tout and the idea of the University, in Thomas Frederick Tout 1855-1929, Barron and Rosenthal (eds), 2019).

1880 marked the start of an important experiment in English higher education.  The Victoria University was established with a mission to become a federal university, uniting colleges across the North of England.  After 1887, the University embraced colleges in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.  However, the experiment, to bring together colleges in three distinct cities, each with strong, proud identities, geographically separate, and with differing needs and priorities, ultimately failed after barely 20 years, leading to the creation of the independent Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds.  The idea of a federal university spanning such a large, diverse English region has never been repeated.  With hindsight, many of the seeds of this failure were already sown in 1880.  By 1879, there was growing frustration that a stalemate had been reached regarding the establishment of a new university.  In order to break the stalemate, many questions were, in reality, left unresolved, especially whether a university should teach as well as examine its students and the scope of academic staff to develop and teach their own curriculum.  At the same time, rivalries between different colleges and between their different communities persisted.  It was, perhaps, a sign of things to come when a minor dispute took place even during the first meeting of the University Court on 14 July 1880 about whether the new University seal should bear the words “Victoria University, Manchester”. As a gesture of goodwill, it was agreed to replace “Manchester” with “1880”. All these issues would re-emerge throughout the life of the Victoria University and would contribute to its eventual demise.  However, it is also important to recognise the role of the Victoria University, inaugurated 140 years ago, in the emergence of the English civic university, and, more specifically, in advocating causes such as higher education for women, a more socially diverse student population, an active regional presence, a breadth of studies and the importance of research across all subjects and involving all academic staff.