A history of the world in 101/2 inches

18 Universities

No-one can say when university education began. Indeed, they cannot even give a definite date for the inauguration of Oxford or Cambridge as seats of learning. Universities in general, and Oxford and Cambridge in particular, simply evolved into formal institutions from very informal beginnings.

The Greeks, of course, knew all about further education. Plato opened his Academy around 387 BC and the orator, Isocrates, founded a rival school at about the same tiem. Both set their sights firmly on the study of philosophy and the acquisition of wisdom, but while Plato concentrated on abstract thought, Isocrates took a more practical point of view and even accepted fee-paying customers.

The modern universities have their origins in medieval European schools known as studia generalia. As scholars began to travel more widely, a need was felt for institutions of learning whose prestige would have more than purely local significance. The studia generalia were meant to satisfy that need, opening their doors to students from all parts of Europe and providing teaching qualifications that would be accepted anywhere. The guild of students and teachers within a studium was known as universitas which, in due course, became the word for the entire institution.

The first university was, according to which authority you consult, established either at Salerno in the 9th century or, more reputably, at Bologna in the 11th. Dante, Petrarch and Copernicus went there, and the institution received a charter from the emperor Frederick I Barbarossa.

While Bologna began as a guild of students in pursuit of learning, the University of Paris adopted a different fashion. Founded some time between 1150 and 1170, it began as a guild of teachers in pursuit of students and that became the model for later Universities, beginning with those at Oxford and Cambridge.

In the 12th century, scholarship was becoming trendy in England, and scholars naturally gathered at Oxford simply because roads from all over the country met there - it was a good place to cross the Thames by ford. In 1167, Henry II, during a squabble with archbishop Becket, forbade English scholars and students to go to Paris, so they all went to Oxford instead. In 1209, a crisis was provoked by murderous quarrels between townsfolk and students, which was finally resolved by a papal settlement in 1214 - which could be considered the first charter for the university. The first formal college to be opened there was University College in 1249, which is often given as the date of the founding of Oxford University, though teaching had been going on there already for more than a century.

Meanwhile, at another river crossing, the University of Cambridge was growing and was boosted by an influx of disaffected Ox-ford students in 1209. Their first college was Peterhouse, founded in 1284. Already in 1231, however, Henry III had sent letters to the sheriffs and mayors of both Oxford and Cambridge, urging them to cooperate with university officials in suppressing "rebellious and incorrigible" students.

In late medieval and Tudor times, Oxford and Cambridge argued about who had come first, with supporters of Cambridge claiming that it had been founded by an ancient Spanish prince called Cantaber, with a later charter from King Arthur, and Oxford countering that it had been founded by the legendary first Briton, the Trojan exile Brutus. In more recent years of peaceful co-existence, Oxford has produced most of our prime ministers, while Cambridge has given us more Nobel prize winners and spies.

While Scotland (St Andrews in 1411) and Ireland (Dublin in 1591) were quick to open new universities, no more appeared in England until the 19th century. With the recent elevation of polytechnics to university status, the UK now has 86 universities.

There are, however 7,301 universities in India, 3,559 in the United States and 1,832 in Mexico.

WILLIAM HARTSTON (MA CANTAB)

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