5 Ways Oxford University Has Changed in the Past Century (And 2 Ways It Will Change in the Future)

This century, the University of Oxford will celebrate its thousandth birthday.

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The first record of teaching in Oxford dates back to 1096; the true date of the university’s foundation is lost in the mists of time. It’s changed a great deal since then, when it was a place where a few hundred sons of the nobility – some as young as fourteen – were taught a wide-ranging curriculum through the medium of Latin. Now, students are usually 18 when they join the university, they come from all walks of life, choose one or two subjects to focus on, are taught in English, and there are over 22,000 of them.
The University of Oxford has evolved steadily since its foundation in the early Middle Ages, and never more so than in the past century. In this article, we take a look at 5 ways the university has changed since 1916, and 2 changes that are still to come.

How Oxford University has changed

1. 1920 – Women gained full membership of the university, and were permitted to take degrees

As we’ll see over the course of this article, 1920 was a year of dramatic change for the University of Oxford. The university had only just begun recovering from the First World War, in which 14,561 members of the university (students and staff) had enlisted, and 20% had been killed. That’s compared with 12% of soldiers generally, as Oxford University members were more likely to be officers, and the death toll among officers was much higher than the still devastating death toll among ordinary soldiers. One college, Oriel, had had 133 undergraduates in 1914; by 1917, only 10 were left, the rest having abandoned their studies to contribute to the war effort in one way or another.

The University of Edinburgh, however, had female graduates as early as the 19th century.
The University of Edinburgh, however, had female graduates as early as the 19th century.

At the same time, the number of women at the university increased considerably. Oxford had been open to female students since 1878 when Lady Margaret Hall was founded, but the First World War contributed considerably to women’s freedom and independence. This was in part because there was a labour shortage with so many able-bodied men having signed up to fight, so their jobs were filled by women, proving that women could carry out what had previously been viewed as men’s work. In 1918, the vote was given to all men over the age of 21 for the first time, regardless of their background or income, and at the same time, women over the age of 30, subject to certain property qualifications, were also given the vote, in recognition of their contribution to the war effort.
This move towards increasing gender equality was reflected in the University of Oxford. The first women to gain degrees in the UK had done so at the University of London in 1880, but in 1920, Oxford caught up, allowing women to become full members of the university, which meant that for the first time they were allowed to take degrees; until then, they had undertaken the same studies as their male colleagues, but not received the same qualification. Although Cambridge had had women’s colleges before Oxford (Girton College was founded in 1869), it would not allow women to take degrees until 1948.

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2. 1920 – Compulsory Greek in Responsions was abolished

The idea of accepting women as full members of the university had first been proposed by the Chancellor of the University, Lord Curzon, in 1909, in a book-length memorandum titled ‘Principles and Methods of University Reform’, which he had written when he was supposed to be recovering from a car accident. In 1909, those ideas had been dismissed by Oxford’s governing body as too radical (and they seem to have seen Curzon as too far-reaching even for suggesting them in the first place; previous Chancellors had been less hands-on), but in the more progressive political climate of 1920, they found more favour. It is interesting that Curzon approved of granting degrees to women, as he was also president of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage.

"Responsions? It's all Greek to me..."
“Responsions? It’s all Greek to me…”

Another one of Lord Curzon’s reformist ideas was to remove compulsory Greek from Oxford’s Responsions exam, usually nicknamed Little Go. This was an exam taken by students shortly after they started studying at Oxford. School leaving examinations weren’t standardised, so Little Go was a form of quality control on the part of the university, to ensure that the colleges weren’t accepting underqualified students. To pass Responsions, students had to answer relatively straightforward questions on Latin, Ancient Greek and mathematics.
This naturally limited the pool of possible applicants to Oxford; not all schools in Britain taught Ancient Greek (a larger number taught Latin, which was axed from Responsions in the 1950s), so candidates would have to learn this challenging language to a sufficient standard independently. Removing Ancient Greek from Responsions was another small step in the long, slow process of making the University of Oxford accessible to intelligent people regardless of their background or privileges.
These weren’t even the only reforms of 1920 – it also represented the date from which the university began to put significantly greater investment into the sciences, and the date from which the influential Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree (or PPE) was taught.

3. 1932 – ‘The Oxford Society’ for alumni founded

These days, we’re used to the idea that every university has some form of organisation for its former members (in Oxford, traditionally called ‘Old Members’ rather than alumni), usually involving dinners, perhaps some mentoring of current students, and certainly lots of requests for donations to the university’s coffers.

The Society enabled former students to keep in touch with their beloved city.
The Society enabled former students to keep in touch with their beloved city.

The first ever society of alumni was founded by Harvard in 1840, but the idea took some time to cross the Atlantic, perhaps because rather more organisation is required to get alumni in one place in a country as large as the USA, while informal ties between Oxford alumni were already well established. But in 1932, the Chancellor of Oxford University (two Chancellors after Lord Curzon), Lord Grey of Fallodon, founded the Oxford Society for alumni, in order to offer alumni “an opportunity of re-establishing contact with the University and of associating themselves with its activities and fortunes”. It was a great success – by 1937, the Society had over 10,000 members, and countless more universities established similar networks for their own alumni.

4. 1937 – Nuffield College is founded

William Morris, First Viscount Nuffield (or Lord Nuffield, for his shorter title) was the entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded Morris Motors. He had left school at the age of 15, was apprenticed to a bicycle repairer, and when he was refused a pay increase, set up his own bicycle repair business at the age of just 16. He moved from repairing bicycles to assembling them, then to assembling motorbikes, and finally to assembling cars – thereby making his fortune. He and his wife were childless, so he gave his fortune to various philanthropic causes; chiefly, education.

Nuffield represented a radical change for the University.
Nuffield represented a radical change for the University.

In October 1936, he gave the University of Oxford £1,250,000 to establish a Trust for the promotion of medical research “unhampered by the cares of private practice and of routine teaching”, which he followed in December 1936 with another £750,000, and in October 1937 with a further £200,000 to cover unexpected expenditure. Also in October 1937, he gave £300,000 for the Radcliffe Infirmary, £100,000 for a laboratory of Physical Chemistry and £900,000 for the foundation of a new college, which became Nuffield College. All in all, that brought his donations to the university to £2.5 million – or more than £150 million in today’s money. The Times described Lord Nuffield as “the greatest benefactor of the University since the Middle Ages”.
The foundation of Nuffield College represented a radical change to the life of the University of Oxford. It was the first college founded that accepted both men and women (previous colleges had all been segregated by gender), that had a specific subject focus, namely the social sciences (excluding theological colleges), and that accepted graduates only, not undergraduates. Several more graduate-only colleges were founded after Nuffield College, through it took rather longer for the principle of co-education to catch on across the whole university.

5. 1974 – The first all-male undergraduate colleges started to accept women

The University of London had admitted women on almost equal terms with men since 1878 (the exception being medical degrees, which women were allowed to take from 1917, in response to a shortage of doctors in wartime). Other universities and colleges in the 1870s and 1880s followed suit. Yet it took until 1974 for the first Oxford undergraduate colleges to admit both men and women. Partly this is because of the different lifestyle of Oxford; it was acceptable for men and women to be taught together, but living in close proximity to one another in the confines of small colleges took longer to become acceptable. The University of London organised its accommodation differently, so it was less of a factor.

Even in the 1970s, female students still faced bullying and abuse from historically all-male colleges.
Even in the 1970s, female students still faced bullying and abuse from historically all-male colleges.

In 1974, five all-male undergraduate colleges – Brasenose, Jesus, Wadham, Hertford and St Catherine’s – opened their doors to women for the first time. In 1972, when this plan had been agreed, a quota of 100 women across the five colleges had been set, but when it came to it, this was disregarded. Wadham College Gazette reported, briefly, that “no difficulties were encountered.” But this was perhaps putting an optimistic gloss on events – female students at previously all-male colleges did face difficulties such as obscenities being written on their bedroom doors or furniture being removed from their rooms in a bullying attempt to chase them out. At that time, a mere 16% of Oxford undergraduates were women – now, it is just under 50%, compared with 56% of students across UK universities as a whole, an imbalance that reflects the slighter better grades achieved, on average, by female students.

How Oxford University will change in future

1. Investments and donations will be under more scrutiny

The pressure is mounting on universities to place their investments and the donations they receive under more scrutiny. Those might be historical donations from philanthropists who earned their money in ways we now find immoral; most famously, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has sought to have statues of Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist and philanthropist who funded Rhodes scholarships, removed from the city. Other historical donors whose gifts are publicly commemorated are also coming under question, such as Christopher Codrington, the slaveowner who gave his fortune and his name to All Souls’ Codrington Library.

Oriel College's statue of Cecil Rhodes has come under heavily criticism.
Oriel College’s statue of Cecil Rhodes has come under heavily criticism.

Investments are another sore spot for some campaigners. The Oxford Fossil Free Campaign calls on the University of Oxford to divest its endowment from fossil fuels, and have had some success; the university refuses to divest existing investments, but has ruled out investing in coal and tar sands in future. Meanwhile, the BDS campaign (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) has called for Oxford to cease investing in Israeli companies, in protest over Israel’s treatment of Palestine, although their campaign has gained less traction. Whatever happens to any of the campaigns above, it’s clear that the University of Oxford – more so than other, less famous universities – will face increased scrutiny over the investments it makes and the donations it accepts, particularly in relation to how they are publicly acknowledged, and its finances may be affected as a result.

2. Closer links to industry

Forging closer connections with industry has been a key goal for most British universities for several decades, partly in order to boost graduate employment prospects. Finding employment isn’t as difficult for Oxford graduates, so the university has been less concerned with this historically, but it is beginning to swim more with the tide of engagement with

Links with industry are of increasing importance to Oxford.
Links with industry are of increasing importance to Oxford.

One notable example of this is Isis Innovation, a technology transfer company owned by the University of Oxford, which helps university academics and researchers commercialise their work, for instance by helping to protect their intellectual property and assisting with marketing. If the increasing need to refuse donations for individuals who made their money in suspect ways might dent university finances, activities like Isis Innovation should soften the blow – the company has assisted in creating more than 70 spin-out companies, worth over £2 billion. Oxford as a place where academics can shut themselves away in ivory towers and be unconcerned with the practical or commercial ramifications of their research may be coming to an end, but Oxford as a centre for technology and innovation is coming into its own.

Image credits: edinburgh graduates; ancient greek writing; oxford skyline; nuffield college; bodleian; oriel; installing socket; christ church; dining hall


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