The third-oldest university in England debate[note 1] has been carried out since the mid-19th century, with rival claims being made originally by Durham University as the third-oldest officially recognised university (1832) and the third to confer degrees (1837) and the University of London as the third university to be granted a Royal Charter (1836). These have been joined more recently by University College London as it was founded as London University (1826) and was the third-oldest university institution to start teaching (1828) and by King's College London (which officially claims to be the fourth-oldest university in England but is claimed by some students to be the third-oldest as the third university institution to receive a Royal Charter, in 1829). Most (but not all) historians identify Durham as the third-oldest, following standard practice in how a university is defined and how this is applied historically, although the popular press is more divided.[note 2]
Following the establishment of Oxford University (by 1167) and Cambridge University (1209), a third university was founded in Northampton in 1261, building on an earlier studium. However, Henry III abolished it on 1 February 1265 following the siege of Northampton in 1264, and to protect the interests of Oxford.
This was followed by an attempt by rebels from Brasenose College, Oxford to establish a university at Stamford, Lincolnshire in 1333, but, after lobbying from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the King ordered the rebels to return to Oxford.
After the suppression of the university at Stamford, graduates from Oxford and Cambridge universities were required to swear oaths not to lecture outside those two universities, and concerted efforts were made by those universities against the foundation of any further universities in England for the next five centuries, during which time five universities opened in Scotland and over 100 on the continent of Europe.
After Durham College, Oxford was suppressed in 1540, Henry VIII planned to establish a college in Durham, but this came to nothing. Gresham College was established in London in 1596 to make university learning available there, but was academically dependent on Oxford and Cambridge and did not develop. Further proposals for a northern university included Ripon (in 1590, 1596 and 1604), York and Manchester in 1641, and Durham in 1651, as well as a University of London, taking in Gresham College. Durham was approved by Oliver Cromwell and letters patent were issued on 15 May 1657 to establish a college, but a petition for degree-awarding powers was denied by Richard Cromwell in 1660 following counter-petitions from Oxford and Cambridge, and the college closed with the restoration of the monarchy later in that year.
It was not until the early 19th-century that a third university-level institution was successfully established, when University College London, King's College London, Durham University, and the University of London were all set up. There were unsuccessful proposals around the same time, including at York (1825), Leeds (1826), and Bath, Newcastle and Manchester in the 1830s.
The debate over which is the oldest of the universities founded in the early 19th century has been going on (originally between London and Durham) since at least the mid 19th century. Durham was referred to as England's third university in 1841. In 1853, however, Lord Brougham secured London's precedence in the Charitable Trusts Act on the grounds of it having the earlier charter; but in the 1858 Medical Act Durham was given precedence. The topic also came up in the House of Commons during a speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the committee stage of the Reform Act 1867, the chancellor originally claiming that London was the older but accepting a correction that "Durham is the older University". At the opening of the Victoria University in 1880, the Duke of Devonshire (who had been the first chancellor of the University of London, was chancellor of Cambridge University, and was being installed as the first chancellor of the Victoria University) was reported in Manchester and Leeds as saying in his speech that Durham predated London, but in Dundee as saying the opposite. Dod's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage stated that precedence should be given to London, giving the dates of foundation as those of the royal charters. Durham, however, was given precedence at the quatercentenary of the University of Aberdeen in 1906, and was also named as the elder in a 1905 article by Richard Claverhouse Jebb, president of the Educational Science Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
This early period of debate appears to have all but ended by 1906, when Sir Arthur William Rucker, principal of the University of London, named Durham as the third University to be successfully established in England in a speech to a delegation from Paris and other French universities who were visiting the University of London, although Viscount Bryce named London as the elder in a speech at the University of Liverpool in 1914. Through most of the 20th century, Durham's claim appears to have gone unchallenged. It was named as the "third oldest university in England" in the Proceedings of the International Assembly of the Inter-state Post-Graduate Medical Association of North America in 1930; Lord Londonderry (Durham's Chancellor) called it "in some sort the mother of modern universities in the United Kingdom" in 1931; the Society of Chemical Industry referred to Durham as "the third University to be established in England" in 1937; a guide published by the Universities Bureau of the British Empire and the British Council in 1937 gave (for the non-ancient universities) the order Durham, London, Manchester, etc.; the press repeatedly named it as third oldest; it was named as "the third oldest University in the country" in Parliament in 1962; Dod's, who had earlier given precedence to London, revised their listing in the 1960s in favour of Durham; and social anthropologist Joan Abbott recorded in 1971 that "The fact that Durham is the third oldest university in England was the first thing the author was told again and again soon after arrival".
In 1986, however, London's claim was reasserted by Negley Harte in his 150th anniversary history. Durham's claim was also directly disputed by UCL in 1998. All three of the claimants have often since asserted that they are the third oldest, and thus all have featured in the press identified as such over the last 20 years. Both The Independent's and the Daily Telegraph's university guides have hedged their bets, giving the title to both UCL and Durham, while referring to King's College London as "the fourth oldest university institution". The debate also spilled over into Scotland in 2007, when The Guardian mistakenly called Durham the "third oldest university in the UK" (rather than in England). In 2016, Durham Magazine published an article on the debate, concluding that "Despite all the above arguments, most people consider Durham to be England’s third oldest university". The Telegraph noted the debate in 2018, saying "Durham University claims to be the third oldest university in England (a title also claimed by University College London)".
Judging a university's foundation as occurring at the earliest point to which teaching can be traced, the establishment of predecessor institutions, the institution's foundation by Act of Parliament, Royal Charter or otherwise, its incorporation, or its date of formal recognition as a university all produce different results.
Formally, a university is an institution that has been granted the right by the government to use the title of university. By this criterion, Durham is the third oldest university, having been named as a university in the Durham University Act 1832 as well as in the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and the Established Church Act 1836, prior to the University of London, receiving the title in 1836. The government assiduously avoided using the names "London University" or "University of London" to refer to UCL during the period when it used those names, including in the 1836 royal charter, the reason being demonstrated on the one occasion (in 1835) when they slipped by William Tooke asking "whether, His Majesty having in his most gracious answer to the Address of the House of Commons recognised by name, and in explicit terms, the University of London, it is not by this royal and official sanction of its style as a University, entitled, without further pageantry or form, to confer all manner of degrees except in Theology and Medicine" (emphasis in original).
However, while this usage was standard for most of the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g. the enumeration of universities in the Robbins Report counts only those formally granted the status, referring to the University of London as a "congeries (collection) of university institutions"), by the 1990s the usage of "university" had extended to take in colleges of London (and Wales) in the Dearing Report. This was at least in part due to the decrease of the power of the central University of London and the concomitant rise in status of the colleges, which had gained the right to confer London degrees themselves and direct access to government funding in the early 1990s. In its modern usage "university" thus often takes on the meaning of de facto rather than de jure university. It is notable that by the formal definition, both UCL and King's remain colleges of the University of London rather than universities in their own right.
This is part of the definition used by the European University Association's four-volume series, A History of the University in Europe, which lists Durham as the third oldest university in England (from 1832) with London as the fourth oldest (from 1836) and UCL and King's only as colleges of London. The full definition used is "institutions of higher education founded or recognized as universities by the public authorities of their territory and authorized to confer academic degrees in more than one discipline", thus excluding single-faculty universities (which is unimportant for this debate).
By date of earliest royal charter, King's College London is the oldest of the four institutions, chartered in 1829. However, its charter was as a college rather than as a university; the first institute to be chartered as a university was the University of London in 1836.
Neither Oxford nor Cambridge, the oldest two universities in England (founded pre-1116 and in 1209 respectively) were founded by Act of Parliament or Royal Charter (Charters were bestowed on Oxford and Cambridge in 1248 and 1231 respectively, although neither is still in force), and both owe their incorporation to an act of parliament in 1571. No university in Britain was founded by grant of a royal charter to the institution prior to London in 1836.
From 1836 to 1992, in contrast, only one university (Newcastle, established by Act of Parliament) was not founded by royal charter. These charters were often accompanied by acts of parliament to transfer the property and obligations of predecessor institutes to the newly founded university. The danger of dating by earliest royal charter is demonstrated by listing the ancient universities by accepted date of establishment, date of royal charter, and date of incorporation; it can be seen that dating by royal charter or incorporation gives a significantly different ordering from the historically-accepted dates.
Durham University's 1837 charter is now the oldest current royal charter of any university in England. Having been rechartered on three occasions, London's current charter (its fourth) is from 1863, while UCL's is from 1977 and King's College London's from 2009.
Modern dictionaries use multiple factors to define "University". The OED goes for "A high-level education institution in which students study for degrees and academic research is done" while Collins Dictionary uses "An institution of higher education having authority to award bachelors' and higher degrees, usually having research facilities". 
Both of these have three components: education, degrees and research, but the balance between them is different. Collins makes research usual, rather than necessary, while the OED only requires students to study for degrees, but does not require that the institution has the power to award degrees itself.
While research was not as important to universities in the 19th century as it is today, UCL, King's and Durham all had staff engaged in research from the start (e.g. Edward Turner at UCL and James Finlay Weir Johnston at Durham). The OED definition thus places Durham, where students studied for degrees from 1833, as the third oldest and UCL and King's, where the first students matriculated in the University of London in 1838, as joint fourth. The Collins definition, by requiring both education and degree awarding powers, clearly favours Durham as London had the degree awarding powers but was an examining body rather than an educational institution, while UCL and King's were both educational institutions but without degree awarding powers.
Older dictionaries use a variety of definitions. Johnson's Dictionary has "a school where all the arts and faculties are taught and studied" (or, in the 'miniature' edition, "a general school of liberal arts"). Other dictionaries followed Johnson in using this definition, and it was used to claim that UCL could not be a university as it did not teach all the liberal arts (omitting theology). This definition was also followed by John Henry Newman in his Idea of a University, where he defined a university as "a place of teaching universal knowledge". This would appear to favour King's College (where theology was taught), but was shown to be due to a false etymology.
Other 19th-century dictionaries build on this. One (from 1824) has "a collection of colleges, where all the liberal arts are taught". This adds to Johnson's definition the idea that a university must consist of colleges. Again, this was used to attack UCL, but was shown to be false by reference to the Scottish universities. By this definition Durham (which was collegiate, but initially, like Dublin, consisted of only one college) would be the third oldest university.
This concept is also seen in the definition (from 1848): "A college, incorporated for the education of youth, in all the liberal arts, sciences, &c., and empowered to confer degrees. A university generally comprehends many colleges, as is exemplified in those of Oxford and Cambridge, in England." Here it is only general, rather than a rule, and confined to England, but Johnson's concept of teaching all the liberal arts is still present, and the idea that degree awarding powers form part of the definition is now present.
Some 19th-century dictionaries go a different route. One (from 1849) defines University with: "Originally, any community or corporation; the whole body of students, or of teachers and students assembled, in a place of education, with corporate rights, and under bye-laws of their own—the name was also held to imply that all branches of study were taught in a university: in the modern sense of the term, a university is an establishment for the purposes of instruction in all, or some of the most important divisions of science and literature, and having the power of conferring certain honorary dignities, called degrees; in some old authors, university means the world." While this mentions Johnson's definition it sets it apart from the "modern sense", which is a more general concept of education (which need only include some branches of knowledge) and degree awarding powers that is similar (except for not mentioning research) to modern definitions.
The only judgment in English law, on the defining criteria of a university, is the decision of Mr Justice Vaisey in St David's College, Lampeter v Ministry of Education (1951) in the Chancery Division. The judgement gives six "essential qualities" that a university should possess, namely that it must:
St David's College possessed most of these, but it did not qualify because of "limited [degree-awarding] powers...and the absence of an express intention [to make] it a university by the sovereign power".
From the Vaisey principles, assuming them all to be applicable, the ordering of when the "prime contenders" below (see discussion there for references) achieved university status is:
Both Durham (1832) and London (1836) could be considered as having been expressly made universities by the sovereign power (royal assent to an Act of Parliament in Durham's case, royal charter in London's), making them universities whether they fulfilled all the criteria or not. Thus Masters could write in 1862 that "the distinctive character of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge is, that they are corporations of Teachers in Arts, having the power to grant Degrees. This is Huber’s idea; and it would appear to be his opinion that this is the essential character of a University : but we shall learn in the sequel that of the three elements here commingled, only two are common to all Universities of modern date".
Besides the question of defining a university, there is the question of what is meant by "third oldest university". The above listing assumes that it means the third institution to achieve university status, but if "third oldest university" means the third oldest institute to have eventually achieved university status (as defined above), then date of foundation is all that is being assessed and the list looks very different:
By selectively choosing the meaning of the question and the factors used to assess university status, many different orderings can be produced.
The first criterion, incorporation, does not apply to all modern universities, some of which are unincorporated trusts under Church of England dioceses, and others are parts of larger, for-profit, corporations. "Sovereign power" might also be seen to exclude any modern university that gained its title through the Companies House route.[note 3]
It could be similarly argued that it did not apply in the early 19th century, when the University of Edinburgh (which was indisputably recognised as a university) was a trust under the town corporation. This is important for the debate as neither UCL not Durham were founded as corporations. If trusts under corporations fall within the definition, then Durham (as a trust under Durham Cathedral established by Act of Parliament) qualifies from 1832, otherwise only from 1837. UCL was not founded by "sovereign power", but as an unincorporated joint stock company, similar to the modern Companies House route.
The next three criteria are taken from Hastings Rashdall's definition of mediaeval studium generale. UCL, King's and Durham meet these from early on, Durham specialising in theology and the London colleges in medicine, but London did not have a teaching rule until it became a federal university in 1900.
The fifth criterion, residents, would appear to imply that universities must be residential. This was certainly not the case in the early 19th century as the Scottish universities were non-residential. The London colleges followed this pattern (as did the redbrick university colleges later on the century), although Durham followed Oxford and Cambridge in being residential. It also does not apply to the modern era, with both the Open University and the University of Arden being distance-learning institutes.
The sixth criterion, degree awarding powers, was the subject of debate at the time, as discussed below under Durham. One side held that degree awarding powers were essential to a university, and thus a grant of university title automatically implied degree awarding powers (as proposed by Tooke and Wetherell amongst others). The other, alternatively, believed that degree awarding powers were separate from, and hence not essential to, university title, and had to be explicitly granted (e.g. by royal charter), as held by Hamilton (and, to judge from his statement in the House of Lords, by Van Mildert).
Hamilton claimed that "University, in its proper and original meaning, denotes simply the whole members of a body (generally, incorporated body,) of persons teaching and learning one or more departments of knowledge; and not an institution privileged to teach a determinate circle of sciences, and to grant certificates of proficiency (degrees) in any fixed and certain department of that circle (faculties)" (emphasis in original), by which definition UCL would clearly be the third oldest.
He goes on to claim that "every liberty conferred was conferred not as an incident, through implication, but by express concession." The two ways in which this could be done were "either by an explicit grant of certain enumerated rights, or by bestowing on it implicitly the known privileges enjoyed by certain other pattern Universities", concluding that "we make bold to say, that there is not to be found, throughout Europe, one example of a University erected without the grant of determinate privileges,—far less of a University, thus erected, enjoying, through this omission, privileges of any, far less of every other.—In particular, the right of granting degrees, and that I'm how many faculties, must (in either way) be expressly conferred."
Contrary to this, however, Rashdall states that "the special privilege of the jus ubique docendi [the precursor to the modern degree] … was usually, but not quite invariably, conferred in express terms by the original foundation-bulls; and was apparently understood to be involved in the mere act of erection even in the rare cases where it is not expressly conceded". Cambridge is an example of this: "Cambridge never received from the papacy an explicit grant of the ius ubique docendi, but it is generally considered that the right is implied in the terms of John XXII’s letter of 1318 concerning Cambridge’s status as a studium generale." Furthermore Edinburgh (Hamilton's own university) was granted the rights of the other Scottish universities by Act of Parliament in 1621, but conferred its first degrees in 1587 without any explicit grant of privileges. This would appear to support the contention of the 18th century Attorney General Philip Yorke (quoted by Wetherell) that "If the Crown erects a university, the power of conferring degrees is incident to the grant".
It is unsurprising that history books about institutions and aimed at the general public should support the claim of the institution backing them, but other studies have also touched upon the question. As noted above, A History of the University in Europe lists Durham as the third oldest university in England, and Oxford historian William Whyte similarly states: "Thus it was that the first new university for almost 250 years was founded—and funded—by the amply endowed Bishop of Durham. Durham University was established by Act of Parliament in 1832 and granted a Royal Charter five years later in 1837." The ‘’Handbook of Comparative Higher Education Law’’ follows the legal definition of a university, saying "In the 1830s the creation of the Universities of Durham (1832) and London (1836) finally ended the Oxbridge monopoly". The historian and politician Sir John Marriott also named Durham as the third university, saying "A third University had been established at Durham in 1832, and four years later London University came into being, but only as an examining body, until in 1900 it was endowed with the full status of a teaching University with a number of constituent colleges." Other historians generally concur, with some stating that "using the date of the incorporating Act of Parliament or Royal Charter as the founding date" is "accepted practice" in naming Durham as third.
However, the consensus on Durham is not absolute. The ‘’International Dictionary of University Histories’’ acknowledges the existence of the debate in its essay on Durham, stating that: "Durham is often referred to as England’s third university, after Oxford and Cambridge. Yet it is also often referred to as England’s fourth, on the assumption that London preceded it, for University College London had been opened in 1828. The difficulty can only be resolved according to one’s definition of what a university is. Those who define a university as an institution which teaches advanced courses favor London over Durham. Those who emphasize the power to award degrees do the same, since the University of London, which absorbed the College in 1836, was granted that power the same year, while Durham received its a year later. But those who prefer the British legal definition give Durham priority, since it received a royal charter four years before London did and, in any event, a college is not the same as a university." Yet the essay on London in the same volume, by the same author, states unequivocally: "Thus the federal university was created as the fourth university in England, just four years after the University of Durham had been founded as the third." Some historians acknowledge that UCL was founded to be a university before becoming a college of the University of London. Some historians also disagree with the assertion that London gained its degree awarding powers before Durham, and others have noted that there was uncertainty at the time as to whether or not Durham had degree awarding powers stemming from its founding Act of Parliament, which was cleared up by it obtaining a royal charter.
As seen above, a number of institutions have significant claims to being the third-oldest university in England. Among the contenders for the title is University College London (UCL) which, although established as a teaching institution in 1826, did not have degree-awarding powers and did not obtain a Royal Charter until 1836, and then only as a college associated with the University of London rather than as a university. King's College London (KCL) was established by Royal Charter in 1829, again as a college unable to award degrees rather than as a university. Like UCL, it was associated with the University of London from 1836. Durham University was established in 1832 by an Act of Parliament which specifically named it as a university, and was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1837, while the University of London was created with explicit degree-awarding powers by Royal Charter in 1836.
|University College London||1826||1828||1836||2005||2008|
|King's College London||1829||1831||1829||2006||2008|
|University of London||1836||1900||1836||1836||1839|
The claim of University College London (UCL) is based on its establishment in 1826 under the name of "London University" as an institution delivering university-level education. It is opposed by the fact that it never received official recognition as a university and is not listed as a university in 19th-century reference works; that it does not have a continuous history as an autonomous institution, having been merged into the University of London from 1907 to 1977; that it only received degree awarding powers in 2005; that it accepted a charter as a college in 1836, giving up its claim to be a university. It is also opposed by the fact that it did not receive its charter until 1836, after King's College London.
Following an abortive attempt by Henry Brougham to establish "London College" via an Act of Parliament, UCL was established on 11 February 1826 as a joint-stock company – equivalent to a modern limited liability company, although not incorporated– under the name of "University of London". It opened for teaching on 1 October 1828. This gives it the earliest date of foundation of any of the contenders and makes it the first to begin operation. It was the first broad-curriculum institution providing education in Arts and the higher faculties of Law and Medicine (as opposed to the specialist medical, legal, and theological schools) and, as such, has a strong claim to be the third oldest university institution in England (which may or may not correspond to being the third oldest university).
UCL applied for a charter under the name of "University of London" in 1830, which would have granted it university status and the right (by implication) of granting degrees in Arts, Law and Medicine. This charter was approved by the law officers of the Crown in 1831 but never received the Great Seal that would have made it valid. In 1834 a second attempt was made to obtain a charter under that name, and in 1835 the House of Commons voted in favour of a petition to the king to grant a charter along the lines of that approved in 1831. However, the government chose instead to grant UCL a charter as a college, rather than as a university, and to found the University of London as a separate body.[note 4] Lord Brougham, the chair of UCL's council, made it clear in a meeting of the proprietors that accepting this charter meant surrendering their claim to be a university, saying "it went a little to his heart … to sink into a college when they had originally started as an university" but that "for his own part he would rather accept it", which the proprietors voted unanimously to do. In November 1838, the first UCL students matriculated in the new University of London and the first London degrees were awarded in 1839.
The first objection to UCL's claim is that it was never granted university status. Possibly due to this, UCL does not feature in 19th-century lists of universities in England. In an article for the Journal of Education in 1888, Edith Wilson states: "There are five, and only five, universities in England. (I begin by starting this explicitly because the name University College so often misleads even those familiar with the language of the educational world.) These five are Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, London, and Victoria." However, UCL still does not have official university status, as it is a college of the University of London, but it is considered to be effectively an independent university by, e.g., the Russell Group. Its claim to be the third oldest university rests on its de facto status, rather than its de jure status.
Another point of opposition to UCL's claim is that it has not been an autonomous institution for the entire period since its founding. After the University of London was reconstituted as a federal body in 1900, UCL surrendered its property and independence and was merged into the University of London under the 1905 University College London (Transfer) Act, which went into effect in 1907. It was not until 1977 that UCL once more became an autonomous Institute. And not until 1993 that it (along with the other colleges) received government funding from HEFCE as an independent institution rather than getting an allocation from the University of London's grant.
A third challenge to UCL's claim is that it did not receive degree awarding powers until 27 September 2005, although it was included in the Education (Recognised Bodies) Order 1997 as one of the "Schools, Colleges and Institutes of the University of London permitted by the University to award University of London degrees". The first UCL degrees were awarded in summer 2008. This is one of the Vaisey criteria for being recognised as a de facto university (see above), so failing to have degree awarding powers could be seen as weakening UCL's case for recognition as a de facto university. However, it has also been claimed that at the time of UCL's foundation there may have been no legal bar to any institute awarding whatever degrees it liked, such as the "Diploma of Master of Medicine and Surgery in the University of London" (M. Med. et Chir. U. L.) advertised in UCL's 1832 calendar. When Brougham (then Lord Chancellor) asked in the Privy Council in 1834, "Pray, Mr. Bickersteth, what is to prevent the London University granting degrees now?" he received the reply: "The universal scorn and contempt of mankind."  Contrary to this view, a case was brought before the House of Lords in 1745 regarding the power of Marischal College in Aberdeen to grant degrees, implying that this was regarded as an activity regulated by law. It was also disputed in the 1830s whether degree awarding powers were an essential part of being a university or not (see discussion under Durham below).
UCL's claim is also opposed by the assertion that it surrendered its claim to University status when it accepted a royal charter as a college in 1836, under the name "University College, London". Rather than receiving its own degree awarding powers, it was associated with the new University of London, with degrees being examined and conferred by the university. This was described as "a barren collegiate Charter" by William Tooke, who had led the parliamentary campaign for UCL's recognition as a university, and an official history of the University of London in 1912 claimed "[UCL's] acceptance of it implied the renunciation of all claim to exercise the full functions of a University, and placed them on a footing of equality with some younger and less important institutions."
The final objection to UCL's claim is its lack of a royal charter prior to 1836. This is the point on which King's College, which is otherwise similar to UCL in terms of objections to its claim, is differentiated from UCL. By date of foundation, UCL is the older, but by date of royal charter King's College is the senior. While it has been noted above that dating by charter is not a good method of determining the ages of universities (see also discussion under London), this is (at least in part) due to the variety of different methods of creating a university: ancient prescription, Papal bull, act of parliament and royal charter, of which only the later two have been used since the Reformation. UCL had none of these, and was neither incorporated in its own right nor (like Edinburgh until 1858 and Durham until 1837) a trust under a corporation (the town council and the cathedral chapter respectively). One answer to this is that UCL claims to be the third oldest university not on the basis of its de jure status but of its de facto status, making this argument irrelevant: if judged by de jure standards, then UCL's and King's College's cases both fail. However, "incorporation by the highest authority" is one of Vaisey's criteria for recognition as a de facto university (see above), so UCL's failure to gain incorporation until 1836 could be seen as denying it de facto status prior to that. Yet the laws on incorporation changed dramatically between the 1820s and Vaisey's judgement, and UCL's formation as a joint stock company would have led to its incorporation in later years.
The critical question for UCL is whether it gained de facto status as a university and has maintained that status, despite the objections raised above. This essentially reduces to whether teaching alone is needed to be considered a university, or whether degree awarding powers and/or incorporation are also required. If it has been a de facto university since 1826 (or the start of operations in 1828), then it is the third oldest university in England, but if it only gained this status later, or lost it through its merger into the University of London from 1907 to 1977, then one of the other claimants will prevail.
The claim of King's College London (KCL) is based on it holding the third oldest royal charter and the third oldest incorporation of any current University-level institution in England. It is opposed in a similar manner to UCL by the fact that it never received official recognition as a university; that it does not have a continuous history as an autonomous Institute, having been merged into the University of London from 1910 to 1980; that it only received degree awarding powers in 2006; that it was chartered as a college rather than a university and, as such, is not listed as a university in 19th-century reference works. It is further opposed by the fact that King's College London itself claims only to be the fourth oldest university in England and by the claim that a charter and legal incorporation are not necessary for a university. If UCL is accepted as being a university from the date of its foundation in 1826, then the claim of King's College London must fail.
King's College London was established by Royal Charter on 14 August 1829 as "King's College, London", a reaction to UCL with the aim of providing an Anglican education.[note 5] [note 6] It was chartered as a college, not a university; the term "university" does not appear in the charter. The college opened its doors to students in 1831. Students at King's either left for degrees at Oxford and Cambridge, gained medical qualifications through the Royal Colleges, or (from 1834) took the Associate of King's College (first awarded 1835); the college did not award degrees of its own.
Following the establishment of the University of London in 1836, King's became an associated college of that university, allowing its students to sit examinations for London degrees. However, students were still encouraged to take the AKC rather than the London degree – which was also open to "godless" UCL students. It also made agreements with Durham and Edinburgh to allow King's College London students to take degrees at those universities with only one year of residence.
Many of the objections to King's College London's claim parallel those raised against UCL's. It lacked (and still lacks) de jure status as a university, and only gained degree awarding powers in July 2006, awarding its first degrees in summer 2008. It surrendered its autonomy to be merged into the University of London from 1910 to 1980, and was only funded as an independent institution rather than through the University of London after 1993. Like UCL, it does not feature in 19th-century university lists.
An objection specific to King's College is that it only claims to be "the fourth oldest [university] in England" in its 2008 annual report and on its website, and states in some of its course brochures that "The University of London is the third oldest university in England, being the first to be established after Oxford and Cambridge." The title of third oldest university is, however, claimed for King's College by student papers and societies. In a podcast on the King's College website, Arthur Burns (Professor of Modern History at King's) describes UCL and King's College as the third and fourth oldest university institutions, rather than the third and fourth oldest universities.
The critical questions for King's College London are whether it gained de facto university status from its foundation and has managed to keep this status since, despite the objections above, and whether, if it has, UCL attained de facto university status before King's College (see discussion above). If both of these are answered in King's College's favour, then it is the third oldest university in England.
Durham University's claim is based on it being the third institution to gain official recognitions as a university, through the 1832 University of Durham Act and again in public general acts in 1835 and 1836, and on it being the third university in England to matriculate students on degree courses and to grant degrees. It is opposed by the fact that it did not gain its royal charter until 1837, later than the other three contenders and the claim that it did not hold degree awarding powers prior to this charter being granted. If either University College London or King's College London is accepted as having been a university since its foundation in 1826 or 1829 respectively, Durham's claim must fail.
Durham University had its beginnings in an act of Chapter on 28 September 1831, which resolved to accept "A plan of an academic institution, to be called Durham College, in connexion with the Dean and Chapter". [note 7] By December of that year, the "college" was being advertised as a "university", with the prospectus appearing in London newspapers. On 4 July 1832, an Act of Parliament was passed, specifically empowering the "Establishment of a University" by the Dean and Chapter, setting up the university as an eleemosynary trust (equivalent to a modern charitable trust) with the Dean and Chapter as trustees and the Bishop of Durham as the Visitor. Students were admitted to degree programmes from 28 October 1833, with the first calendar (from autumn 1833) advertising the institution as "University of Durham founded by Act of Chapter with the Consent of the Bishop of Durham 28 September 1831. Constituted a University by Act of Parliament 2nd and 3rd William IV., Sess. 1831-2." An Act of Chapter on 4 April 1834 resolved "that the College established by Act of Chapter, 28th September 1831, be constituted a University".[note 8] Durham received its royal charter on 1 June 1837, and the first degrees were conferred on 8 June 1837.
The first objection to Durham's claim is that it did not receive a royal charter to make it a university until 1837. The question here is whether the royal charter or the 1832 act of parliament (possibly combined with the 1834 act of chapter) gave Durham university status. (Whether Durham became a university in 1832 or 1834 does not affect the third oldest university in England debate.)
Not all universities in the United Kingdom possess charters, with the "post-92" institutions explicitly deriving their university status from the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, and Newcastle University from the Universities of Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne Act 1963. Even more relevant to Durham's case are the examples of Oxford and Cambridge, both of which operated for many years without a charter following their respective foundations – indeed, by date of charter Cambridge is the senior – while neither was formally incorporated until 1571.
The university was referred to as "the University of Durham" in two public acts of parliament prior to the granting of its charter: the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, and the Established Church Act 1836. The Royal Charter itself is explicit that it is incorporating a pre-existing University, not founding a new one, referring to it as the "University of Durham, so established under our Royal sanction, and the authority of our Parliament". The 1837 Attorneys and Solicitors Act, which extended various privileges of Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin graduates to Durham and London, draws a sharp distinction between the foundation of Durham under the act of parliament and the foundation of London by royal charter. The 1907 University of Durham Act also makes it clear that Durham's foundation as a university was distinct from the incorporation by royal charter.
The second objection to Durham's claim is that it did not have degree awarding powers until it received its royal charter in 1837. During the second reading of the bill which became the Act in the House of Lords, William van Mildert, the Bishop of Durham, had said that degree awarding powers would require a royal charter would be required. This charter was not conferred until 1 June 1837, with the first students graduated a few days later on 8 June. However, contrary to what van Mildert had said and following legal advice from Sir Charles Wetherell, it contained no grant of degree awarding powers.[note 9]
The reason behind this can be seen in the debate in the mid 1830s on the nature of universities and their degree awarding powers. One side held that university status and degree awarding powers were inseparable, so that the creation of a university contained implicitly a grant of degree awarding powers. Adherents to this view included William Tooke, who led the parliamentary campaign for the recognition of UCL as the University of London, and Sir Charles Wetherell, who argued against the grant of a charter to UCL as the University of London before the Privy Council.[note 10]
The other side of the argument was that university status was distinct from degree awarding powers, so it was quite possible for a university to exist without holding the right to grant degrees. This was supported by Bishop van Mildert, as shown above, and by the liberal Sir William Hamilton, who wrote a response to Wetherell in the Edinburgh Review arguing that historically the power to award specific degrees was explicitly granted, and thus the recognition of an institution as a university does not, in itself, grant any power to award degrees. "But when it has been seriously argued before the Privy Council by Sir Charles Wetherell, on behalf of the English Universities … that the simple fact of the crown incorporating an academy under the name of university, necessarily, and in spite of reservations, concedes to that academy the right of granting all possibly degrees; nay when (as we are informed) the case itself has actually occurred, —the "Durham University," inadvertently, it seems, incorporated under that title, being in the course of claiming the exercise of this very privilege as a right, necessarily involved in the public recognition of the name : — in these circumstances we shall be pardoned a short excursus, in order to expose the futility of the basis on which this mighty edifice is erected."
Caught between these two points of view, Thorp wrote to the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, in February 1836 noting that degree awarding powers might be inherent in being a university, but that it would be desirable to have either a charter or a legal declaration that one was unnecessary (no response is recorded). The university also sought Wetherell's counsel on the matter of the charter in March, and were advised to avoid mention of degree awarding powers and let them be carried by the title of university. It can be seen from the charter that Wetherell's counsel prevailed, and Durham went on to award degrees without any explicit grant of powers.
What is important for the debate, however, is that the view that Durham did not gain degree awarding powers via recognition as a university relies on degree awarding powers not being essential to being a university. This point of view also strongly supports the claims of University College London and King's College London, although if formal recognition as a university is considered essential Durham could still prevail.
The first critical question for Durham is whether it gained de jure University status via the 1832 act of parliament (or the subsequent 1834 act of chapter) or, despite the various legal recognitions of its status in the intervening years, not until the 1837 royal charter. If it gained university status in 1832 or 1834, then Durham is the third oldest de jure university in England. Alternatively, if London was not truly established as a university in 1836 (see discussion below), then Durham is the third oldest de jure university in England regardless of which date is taken for its foundation.
The second critical question is whether either University College London or King's College London should be considered de facto universities prior to this, despite the objections given in their discussions. If neither of them qualifies, and if the first question established Durham as the third oldest de jure university, then Durham is the third oldest university in England.
The University of London's claim is based on it being the third institute in England to receive a Royal Charter as a university and the claim that it was the third university in England to gain degree awarding powers. It is opposed by the fact that dating by royal charter is not consistent with the historically-accepted dates of foundation for British universities and that possessing a Royal Charter is not necessary to be a university; by the fact that its royal charter was annulled by the death of William IV and the claim that the later date of December 1837, when it was rechartered by Queen Victoria, should therefore be used; and by the claim that the lack of teaching in the University of London prior to its reconstitution as a federal institution in 1900 meant it was not truly a university. Its claim to be the third University to gain degree awarding powers is also disputed. As London's date of foundation is later than the other three institutions, if any of their claims to have been a university from their dates of foundation are accepted, London's claim must fail.
The University of London was established and chartered in 1836 as a degree awarding body. It received a second charter in 1837, a third in 1858 and a fourth in 1863, under which it is now incorporated. It matriculated is first students in 1838 (from UCL and King's College London) and awarded its first degrees in 1839 (again to students from UCL and King's College London). In 1900 it was reconstituted as a federal university by statutes drawn up under the University of London Act 1898, including as schools of the university UCL and King's College London along with a number of other colleges in London.
The first objection to London's claim is that dating by royal charter does not reflect historical reality as a royal charter is not necessary to be a university. Ordering British universities by date of royal charter places Cambridge (charter 1231) as the oldest rather than Oxford (charter 1248) and moves St Andrews (charter 1532) down to third oldest in Scotland, behind Glasgow (charter 1453) and Aberdeen (charter 1495). Related to this is the fact that most British universities have been created under acts of parliament (particularly the Further and Higher Education Act 1992) rather than by royal charter, and so would be missing entirely from an ordering drawn up by royal charter. While this does not entirely invalidate London's claim, it means that the critical question (besides whether official status should be the deciding factor at all) is whether Durham gained official university status under its 1832 act of parliament, which was discussed in the previous section.
The second objection is that London was only incorporated under its 1836 charter "during Our Royal Will and Pleasure". Sources give two differing interpretations on what this meant, with some saying the charter expired on the death of William IV, and others that it may never have been valid but if it were it would have expired 6 months after the king's death. It was re-incorporated by a second Royal Charter on 5 December 1837 (postdating the royal charters of the other three contenders). This date is sometimes given in Victorian sources as the founding of the university, and is the date used as the date of creation in the supplemental charter of 1850 and the charters of 1858 and 1863. It is notable that while the 1863 corporation was made the legal successor to the 1858 corporation in its charter, and the 1858 corporation was made the legal successor to the 1837 corporation, the 1837 corporation was not made the legal heir to the 1836 corporation. However, the privileges granted to the University of London under the Attorneys and Solicitors Act 1837, made in July between Victoria's accession and the sealing of London's second charter, appear to have been applied to the subsequent legal corporations without any need for renewal, indicating that there may have been an implied inheritance of legal status.
The third objection is that the University of London, as constituted in the 19th century, was truly a university has also been questioned. As founded in 1836/7, it was "an examining board appointed by the government", with no teaching and degree awarding powers limited to six named degrees. As noted above, some authorities believed this limitation on degree powers was unenforceable legally, but London chose to apply for (and received) further charters when it wished to expand its degree-awarding powers, until these were removed from its charter and into the university's statutes in 1900.
However, it was the first of these issues – the lack of teaching in the university – that led to the most criticism. Henry Wace, principal of King's College London told a Royal Commission said in 1888 that he "had two … objections to the title of the University of London: one, that it is not a University, and the other that it is not of London". In a similar vein, Karl Pearson, a professor at UCL, said that "[t]o term the body which examines at Burlington House a University is a perversion of language, to which no charter or Act of Parliament can give a real sanction". Modern historians have taken a similar line, describing the University of London of that era as "a Government department, in the form of a board of examiners with power to matriculate students and award degrees … it had the trappings of a university, but not its most obvious function – it did not teach," and as "what would today be called a quango". The problems thrown up by the lack of teaching in the university led eventually to its reconstitution as a federal teaching and research institution in 1900.
The claim that London was the third university in England to gain degree awarding powers is disputed as it depends on Durham not having gained them implicitly through being granted university status (or having failed to obtain University status prior to the granting of its royal charter). This is discussed in the previous section. This claim also depends on the 1836 charter being valid, which (as noted above) is called into doubt by contemporary sources. London was certainly, however, the first university in England to receive an explicit grant of degree awarding powers as Oxford and Cambridge owe their powers to ancient prescription and Durham has only an implicit grant.
For London, the critical question is whether any of the prior claims of UCL, King's College London and Durham are true. If these claims are not considered valid, then London is the third oldest university in England unless it is shown that it was, for some reason (see discussion above), not a university prior to Durham's royal charter being granted on 1 June 1837, after which Durham's status is not disputed.
Many present day institutions incorporate earlier foundations, such as theological colleges or medical schools, or are able to trace their origins to earlier teaching operations, and thus may be considered to have a longer heritage than those listed above. It should noted that none of these make an explicit claim to have been a university at the time of the earlier teaching, or is publicly claimed to be the third oldest university in England, which is why these are listed separately from the for institutions above.
The medical school of Queen Mary, University of London – Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry – incorporates St. Bartholomew's Hospital, which began unofficial medical teaching in 1123, the earliest date of known organised medical teaching in the United Kingdom. The school also comprises one of the first official medical schools in England (the London Hospital Medical College, founded 1785); however, that school was not a university in its own right, having only prepared students for the examinations of the Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Surgeons and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London.
In the same vein, the medical school of King's College London — Guy's, King's and St Thomas' (GKT) School of Medical Education — incorporates St Thomas's Hospital Medical School, which traces its history back to the first recorded teaching in St Thomas' Hospital in 1561, and is regarded as one of the oldest medical schools. The hospital itself was founded in 1173 and traces its roots to the establishment of St Mary Overie Priory in 1106.
Wye College was founded in 1447 by John Kemp, the Archbishop of York, as a college for the training of priests. It merged with Imperial College London in 2000 and was closed in 2009. Similarly, Ushaw College of Durham University hosted until 2011 a Roman Catholic seminary that had been established in 1568 in Douai in northern France and which relocated to Ushaw Moor, four miles west of Durham in 1808 but did not become part of the university (as a Licensed Hall) until 1968. Durham University already has a much stronger claim to be the third-oldest university through its creation by Act of Parliament in 1832. Heythrop College, the specialist philosophy and theology constituent college of the University of London, was founded in 1614 in Belgium but did not move to London (after several other locations) until 1970 and became part of the university in 1971.
Of the redbrick universities and University of London institutes, arguments are made for their previous foundations as having descended from or incorporated other bodies; mainly descending from Mechanics' Institutes or medical schools formed in the early 19th century.
The University of Birmingham has traced formal medical lectures to 1767 through the Birmingham Workhouse Infirmary, a precursor to Birmingham Medical School which was founded in 1825 and received a Royal Charter as Queen's College, Birmingham, in 1843. Similar claims have been made by other redbrick institutions such as the University of Liverpool through the Liverpool Royal Institution a society established 1814 "for promoting the increase and diffusion of Literature, Science and the Arts" and held lectures on these subjects (Royal Charter 1821, dissolved 1948), the archives of which were transferred to University College, Liverpool. A number of 'modern' universities also claim descent from earlier Mechanics' Institutes, including Liverpool John Moores University, from a Mechanics' Institute founded in 1825; Birkbeck, University of London, founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics Institute; and Leeds Beckett University from the 1824-founded Leeds Mechanics Institute. The University of Manchester traces its teaching (through the Victoria University of Manchester and Owen's College) to the Royal School of Medicine and Surgery, founded in 1824, and also (through UMIST) to the Manchester Mechanics Institute, also founded in 1824.
Other universities harken back to teaching in cathedrals and monasteries in their cities, e.g. the University of Sunderland's note that "Sunderland has been an important centre for education since 674 AD, when Benedict Biscop built St Peter's Church and monastery", and the claim by Durham University (founded by Durham Cathedral) that "Durham University is the inheritor of a continuous line of learning and scholarship dating from Bede and Cuthbert to the present day".
The four Inns of Court in London, together with the associated Inns of Chancery, formed a recognised centre of legal and intellectual education, and – although never a university in any technical sense – were sometimes collectively described in the early modern period as England's "third university". Most notably, this claim was made in Sir George Buck's tract, The Third Universitie of England: Or a Treatise of the Foundations of all the Colledges, Auncient Schooles of Priviledge, and of Houses of Learning, and Liberall Arts, within and about the Most Famous Cittie of London, published in 1615 as an appendix to John Stow's Annales.
Gresham College, a higher education institute founded in London in 1597 was the first home of the Royal Society (who received their royal charter in 1662). The college was also mentioned in Buck's Third Universitie of England alongside the Inns of Court.
The London University is not covered with the reverent dust of antiquity, and new institutions are more susceptible than ancient ones. Yet the London University would, I think, have shown more generosity if it had welcomed its younger brother. [An hon. MEMBER: Durham is the older University.] Then it is another instance of the hatred of the younger brother towards the elder
It was now between forty and fifty years since the University of London was called into existence, closely following the foundation of the University of Durham.
It was now between forty and fifty years since the University of London was called into existence, closely following the creation of the University of Durham.
It was nearly 50 years since the University of London was called into existence. Closely following the creation of this was the University of Durham.
In the year 1832 Oxford and Cambridge were the only universities south of the Tweed ... The University of Durham was established in 1833. In 1836 the University of London, as an examining and degree-giving body, received its first charter.
It was not till the first quarter of the 19th century had ended that an attempt to establish a third University in England meet with success. The University of Durham was founded in 1832 in direct imitation of Oxford and Cambridge.
Now they had several new universities in England. First came the University of London, then the University of Durham…
The demand for wider facilities for higher education than could be provided by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge ... resulted in the establishment of the other Universities of England and Wales. These are in order of foundation: Durham (Durham and Newcastle divisions), London, Manchester, Wales, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol, Reading.
Besides being a county town, it boasts the third oldest University in England and a cathedral whose beauties are known the world over.
Next to Oxford and Cambridge, Durham is the oldest university in England
Though it is the third oldest university in England, it is not a university of the 'ancient' type.(originally published by Athlone Press in 1986)
Being old is good for a university, so when Durham advertised itself this week as 'England's third oldest university', University College, London, immediately sought to put the record straight.
As England's third oldest university town - the castle houses one of the colleges - there is more than a whiff of "town and gown" about the place.
Being part of a university is also part of the attraction of Durham Business School. Anne-Marie Nevin, its development officer, says: "We're part of the third-oldest university in England, after Oxford and Cambridge.
Imperial College today served notice that it will leave the University of London, sending shockwaves through England's third oldest university.
…the question still remains who came third?
The University of London … was granted its first charter in 1836 and is the third-oldest university in England.
Durham, which boasts the third oldest university in England…
…Durham University, England's third oldest university (after Oxford and Cambridge)…
County Durham even holds the third oldest university in the country, The University of Durham.
It wasn’t until 1826 that England got a third university (Scotland had four, founded between 1413 and 1592), when ‘London University’ – later to be renamed University College, London – was founded. (There is some debate, however, over whether the UCL actually was a university. It was a private company with shareholders, and did not receive a royal charter.)(Wikipedia blocks links to this source)
Nestled in a tree-lined gorge on the main railway line between London and Scotland, Durham University is the unlikely seat of Islamic finance teaching in the United Kingdom. Here, in the third-oldest university in England, a world heritage site, students have been coming to learn the principles of Islamic finance for more than a quarter of a century.
Founded in 1836, the University of London is the third oldest university in England.
England's third oldest university, and impressive academically, UCL is London's research and teaching powerhouse.
England's third oldest university has a strong collegiate system.
In addition to being England’s third oldest university after Oxford and Cambridge, Durham has the highest student satisfaction in this top
In the middle of the top 10 league table is University College London. Based in the capital, the university itself is the third oldest university in England, founded in 1826.
King's College London is England's fourth-oldest university institution.
Founded in 1829, King's College London is England's fourth-oldest university institution and one of the largest colleges of the University of London.
Several Scottish readers and others took us to task for stating, wrongly, that Durham University is the third oldest in the UK. That title belongs to St Andrews, founded in 1413
Today there are 176 higher education institutions in the UK of which 115 are titled universities (which include the various constituent parts of both the University of London and the University of Wales).
Over the past 10 years the university has become an increasingly loose federation of independent institutions that are universities in their own right and receive their grants directly from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, although they still hand out degrees on behalf of the central university.
Durham, site of the third oldest university in England (after Oxford and Cambridge), has been a seat of learning for much longer than it has been a university city.
An ancient city, steeped in history, Durham's links with education stretch back almost a thousand years. Durham University has not been around quite so long, although its foundation in 1832 makes it England's third oldest university.
UCL is the third oldest university in England after Oxford and Cambridge. As such the collections of rare books, manuscripts and archives which UCL holds have a lot to tell us about the way modern universities and their syllabi developed from the beginning of the nineteenth century.(Note: quote is from foreword by Michael Arthur, President and Provost of UCL)
When, in 1832, England did eventually acquire a third university, Durham…
Durham is a small but venerable seat of learning, and its University, which was founded in 1832 and obtained the right to grant degrees before that of London, is the third oldest in England.
When new universities were established (starting with Durham, in the north-east of England, in 1832)…
It was not until 1828 that a non-conformist university was created in Gower Street to challenge the power of the established universities. University College London was quickly followed by King's College (1829) – the two becoming the first constituent colleges of London University in 1836 – and Durham was founded in 1832
Outside London, a new university appeared at Durham in 1834, given degree awarding powers from the start because it was Anglican…(1834 is the date of the Act of Chapter formally declaring Durham to be a university, as discussed below)