Ancient university

This article is about the oldest universities in Britain and Ireland. For ancient centers of higher education around the world, see Ancient higher-learning institutions.
The University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world

The ancient universities are seven extant British and Irish medieval universities and early modern universities founded before the year 1600.[1] Four of these are located in Scotland, two in England, and one in Ireland. The ancient universities in Britain and Ireland are amongst the oldest extant universities in the world.


The surviving ancient universities in England, Scotland and Ireland are, in order of formation:

Year Name Contemporary location Current location Notes
1096 University of Oxford Kingdom of England Oxford, England, UK "There is no clear date of foundation, but teaching existed at Oxford in some form in 1096 and developed rapidly from 1167, when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris."[2] Teaching suspended in 1209 (due to town execution of two scholars) and 1355 (due to the St. Scholastica riot).
1209 University of Cambridge Kingdom of England Cambridge, England, UK Founded by scholars leaving Oxford after a dispute caused by the execution of two scholars in 1209.
1413 University of St Andrews Kingdom of Scotland St Andrews, Scotland, UK Founded by a Papal Bull building on earlier bodies established between 1410 and 1413
1451 University of Glasgow Kingdom of Scotland Glasgow, Scotland, UK Founded by a Papal Bull
1495 University of Aberdeen Kingdom of Scotland Aberdeen, Scotland, UK King's College was founded in 1495 by Papal Bull and Marischal College in 1593; they merged in 1860
1582 University of Edinburgh Kingdom of Scotland Edinburgh, Scotland, UK Established by a Royal Charter granted by James VI
1592 University of Dublin Kingdom of Ireland Dublin, Ireland. Founded by Charter of Queen Elizabeth I; Trinity College[1][3][4] is the only constituent college of the university

These universities often find themselves governed in a quite different fashion to more recent additions. The ancient universities of Scotland also share several distinctive features and are governed by arrangements laid down by the Universities (Scotland) Acts. In addition to these universities, a number of now-obsolete universities were founded during this period, including the University of Northampton (1261–1265), royal attempts to establish universities in Fraserburgh and Durham, plus the predecessor institutions to the University of Aberdeen founded in 1495 and 1593 (noted above).

Undergraduate Master of Arts degree

The ancient universities are distinctive in awarding the Magister Artium/Master of Arts (MA) as an undergraduate academic degree. This is commonly known as the Oxbridge MA, Trinity MA (Dublin), or the Scottish MA.

The ancient universities in Scotland confer the MA degree at graduation with honours and a final mark; in contrast, the ancient universities in England and Ireland award the MA purely after a period of good standing following graduation as Bachelor of Arts, usually around three years.

Because they award the MA as an undergraduate Arts degree, the ancient universities award differing titles for their postgraduate master's degrees in the Arts and Humanities, such as the taught Master of Letters ("MLitt (T)"). Some confusion can arise as to whether such degrees are taught degrees or the most established (and advanced) two-year research degrees, although this is often specified.

Universities (Scotland) Acts

The University of St Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland and the third oldest in Britain or Ireland.

As mentioned above, the Universities (Scotland) Acts created a distinctive system of governance for the ancient universities in Scotland, the process beginning with the 1858 Act and ending with the 1966 Act. Despite not being founded until after the first in these series of Acts, the University of Dundee shares all the features contained therein.

As a result of these Acts, each of these universities is governed by a tripartite system of General Council, University Court, and Academic Senate.

The chief executive and chief academic is the University Principal who also holds the title of Vice-Chancellor as an honorific. The Chancellor is a titular non-resident head to each university and is elected for life by the respective General Council, although in actuality a good number of Chancellors resign before the end of their 'term of office'.

Each also has a Students' Representative Council as required by statute, although at the University of Aberdeen this has recently been renamed the Students' Association Council.[5]

Later universities

Following the creation of the ancient universities, no more universities were created in Britain and Ireland until the 19th century. Precisely which of these 19th-century institutions was the earliest post-ancient university is a matter of debate. In brief, the main university-level foundations after this time are:

In addition the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow traces its origins back to the Andersonian Institute of 1796, but did not receive a Royal Charter until 1964.

The more recent red brick universities of the later 19th century and early 20th century such as the University of Birmingham were soon to follow. Thereafter in the 1950s and 60s the "plate glass universities" were formed and after the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, polytechnics were granted university status.


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