The History of Higher Education – a collaborative venture

I think understanding where we have come from helps professional staff in higher education. To this end I have delivered a session at the Association of University Administrators annual conference focusing on the history of higher education for the last 15 years. Of course it changes each year, not least as the conferences now have a theme. Last year the session was ‘The Changing University’, this year it was to be sub-titled ‘a collaborative venture’.

While there’s a modest utility in knowing the difference in the vision of a university as set out by Wilhelm von Humboldt or St John Henry Newman, I think the key advantage is understanding the scale of the journey. A sociologist of higher education observed that successful higher education institutions had an organisational saga. What Burton Clark meant was that the successful institution really understood what it was trying to do, why it mattered and that it had consciously chosen to do it.

Although I commend institutional histories, I set out to explain the history of institutions – attempting a grand sweep across 900 years of real history (with a brief mention of another 2000 years of fake history). 

A theme of all my sessions is a focus on change, a sector that can be sometimes be found in buildings many hundreds of years old looks as if it doesn’t change, but we do. We also collaborate. Sometimes through grand planed schemes, such as when we gathered to sort out what a British PhD would be like, and sometimes through the quiet process of sharing good practice (or quietly dropping bad practice).

The AUA Conference itself is such a great example of such a collaborative space.  I went to the first ever conference, and was amazed by the openness of hundreds of professional services staff sharing good ideas and practices and exploring policy options. We even had a bishop warning us about marketization.

I would have been exploring our organisational saga: how collaboration, and sometimes competition, has made us such a successful sector. The conference is postponed until 2021, but I will have a new segment to add; the way that we have collaborated together during this crisis. With government attention elsewhere, it has been the sector, with its traditions of co-regulation that have come forward. And, at time of writing, the only attempt to try a competitive response (in offer making) was swiftly slapped down.

When the Privy Council first agreed that there should be teaching universities in England they wisely inserted rules into the charters to prevent unhelpful competition. Over a hundred years later, the House of Lords amended the general duties of the OfS to have regard to the benefits of collaboration.

But as well as the worthy bits, there would be have been arcane facts – I like arcane facts. Some of them can be founded in other posts on this site.

So, I am sad that we can’t be gathered together for the conference, but hope we’ll all be back, with our spirit of collaboration freshly renewed after we’ve got through 2020. And maybe I can add to my collection of AUA conference memorabilia…

Autonomy and the Academic Year

A strength of any University system is the autonomy it gives to its constituent members to organise themselves differently. There are many features of the British system that manifest this, but a key area is the way that we organise our academic years. We do things differently, quite differently. Hopefully this isn’t lost on policy makers who aren’t as familiar with semesters as they are terms.

There was a time when there was much greater convergence in systems, but in the 1980s came the rise of modularisation and with it the rise of semesterisation, Before then, a university could demonstrate its modernity simply by adopting names for their terms not based on the liturgical calendar.

The academic year shall be divided into three terms and three vacations.
(1) The first, or Michaelmas, Term shall begin on and include 1 October and end on and include 17 December.
(2) The second, or Hilary, Term shall begin on and include 7 January and end on and include 25 March or the Saturday before Palm Sunday, whichever is the earlier.
(3) The third, or Trinity, Term shall begin on and include 20 April or the Wednesday after Easter, whichever is the later, and end on and include 6 July.

University of Oxford, Regulations on the Number and Length of Terms

A teaching model exclusively based on terms has now become a mixed model. I had a look at a selection of the patterns of English universities, chosen for their broad similarity (except for two added for effect). The first two ‘terms’ are broadly similar; bound as we are to Christmas and then to Easter.

It’s that third ‘term’ that differs. Here is the unwinding of the difference between semesters and terms. In most cases they are much shorter than the other periods and are dominated by assessments. Although labelled ‘exams’ on my chart, these are the final weeks of learning culminating in assessments. Here the art work is completed, the dress made, the model finished and the dissertation refined.

It was probably inevitable that, as higher education providers emerged, they followed the established pattern of the academic year, accentuated when both school exams and funding systems fully aligned to it. However, there was a curious phase in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the autonomous universities moved to adopt modularisation and also a semester structure. A group on modularisation at the University of Leeds surveyed 57 universities and members of federal universities in 1990 and found 33 of them already advanced in their plans to adopt modules*. This was radical stuff. Not everyone was convinced (and some still aren’t) that each module should have its own learning outcomes and those should be assessed within that module. Of course, the CNAA institutions were already well advanced with modularisation, but a new normal emerged in the sector.

The Leeds group considered models of semesters, noting the problem of the traditional vacations. They rejected the Stirling model (where the semester including exams was concluded before Christmas) settling for a short assessment period at the end of first semester after Christmas and a longer one after the second semester.

But, for a sector used to evolutionary change, the near universal move to modules, and the large number who moved to semesters, marked a clear change. When the sector came together in 1992 this framed a consistent way of working, hard-wired into the legacy of the Dearing Report (even if we haven’t kicked on to have a proper CATS system). The differences in academic year structure remains as a clear indicator of where autonomous universities took different decisions, particularly those who stayed with terms.

We’ve seen two recent examples of where there’s not enough consideration of these differences. First was the debate over admissions and now we have the response to Coronavirus. While the admissions conundrum affects the start of the year, where we have a fair degree of similarity, the ‘lockdown’ has hit the end of the year, and consideration of what that third ‘term’ consists of.

My sample of 2019/20 term dates shows the different challenges that universities face. Universities with fully semesterised programmes will have complete student profiles for up to 300 of the 360 credits of students’ work. Others will have less. Although potentially just a short-hand, DfE have referred to forthcoming assessments as ‘finals’ – not that helpful for students at level 4, 5 or 7 and supposing a exam model that is certainly no longer uniform. We need to remember that both teaching and assessment patterns will differ, a solution at university A will not fit university B.

And then, this is just the standard undergraduate pattern. Universities are trying to fit their solutions to January starting students, and year-long postgraduate students. Imagine also the issues for accelerated courses, surely the DfE hasn’t forgotten those?

* University of Leeds, Group on Modularisation of Courses (1991)

Collaborative Provision: Is the information right?

There are 392 providers on OfS’ register. One of the concerns raised as the registration process started was that this was less than half the number of providers that had previously been regulated by HEFCE and/or DfE. While SCITTs made up a large number of these, it is clear that many providers still offering higher education have switched from direct regulation to operating via collaborative provision.

Delivering provision via contracting out means that the OfS registered provider remains responsible for the courses and the students. This is made particularly clear in the new OfS consultation on harassment & sexual violence.

… the OfS considers that a provider is responsible for protecting all students registered with it or with other providers delivering its courses under a sub-contractual arrangement.

OfS 2020 Consultation on harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education

The OfS register provides a clear record of who is approved (although it’s quite odd that it remains only accessible in a spreadsheet you have to download). There is no such equivalent list for provision available through collaborative provision. The best that has been provided was table 6 in the spreadsheet that OfS posted in 2019 enclosing HESES and HEIFES data from providers. Here was a hint at the rich pattern of provision delivered in collaboration. It also showed the complexity; for example universities have provision delivered by other universities (the University of Cambridge has provision delivered by the University of Oxford).

It also demonstrated the scale of provision. HESES records a provider’s understanding of the ‘assumed countable years’ of students in an academic year as viewed at 1 December. In 2019 there were 58,840 ‘Years of instance taught under subcontractual arrangements by other providers’. The total population in HESES was 2,053,725. Most of the collaborative arrangements are small, but comparing the student numbers with the overall size of the provider shows there are 24 providers whose subcontractual arrangements account for more than 10% of their numbers.

ProviderHESESSub-contracted%
Holy Cross College 375375100.0
New City College 1930191599.2
Unified Seevic Palmer’s College 32529089.2
New College Swindon 94082087.2
Milton Keynes College 61047577.9
Walsall College 71549068.5
Heart of Worcestershire College 114077568.0
Leicester College 97554555.9
Harper Adams University 5695280049.2
University of Suffolk 7120348548.9
Eastleigh College 1758045.7
New College Stamford 24510542.9
Buckinghamshire New University 10040371537.0
Roehampton University 12520376030.0
Birmingham Metropolitan College 2757025.5
East Sussex College Group 53513024.3
University of St Mark & St John 267063023.6
Warwickshire College 119522518.8
Sunderland College 4558017.6
Colchester Institute 103017517.0
Courtauld Institute of Art 5008016.0
Falmouth University 6700106015.8
Staffordshire University 14780225515.3
University of Worcester 9695119012.3
Data from OfS HESES Tables 1,2,3 all modes & levels, assumed countable & Table 6

Higher education has a lot of experience of contracting out provision – and some of the providers here represent that tradition with multiple FEC partners. Some of the partnerships represent providers with a portfolio of ‘alternative providers’, in addition to its work with FECs and health trusts Bucks New had 2019 links with Global Banking School Ltd, London School of Science & Technology Ltd, Mont Rose College of Management and Sciences Ltd, RTC Education Ltd, and UCFB College of Football Business Ltd.

Sub-contracting provision has been a larger part of the learning and skills sector, and several providers have very large subcontractual links with one other provider. The UK College of Business and Computing has 99% of New City College’s students and David Game College has 85% of New College Swindon’s students. There are also different patterns, all of Holy Cross’ students are taught by Liverpool Hope University.

It will be important that this wider sector, included sub-contracted provision, is regulated on an equivalent basis. One of the concepts that David Watson explored in his writing was that of the “Controlled Reputational Range”. This was the notion that in UK Higher Education, although there could not be exact parity between all universities, there was a framework that meant that no institution was able to behave so badly that it damaged the overall reputation of the sector. This applies here.

There is some concern that, as represented in providers’ public websites, the exact nature of the sub-contracted provision is not fully explained to applicants. Some sub-contracted providers are coy about even having a link.

As an example, Oxford Business College has diversified from awarding just HNDs; it’s not registered with the OfS, so the students must be at another provider if they are to access student loans. It’s not clear which provider that is for its HNDs. It is now offering BA degrees; a curiosity is that it offers two different BAs in Business Management from two providers. There is little on the website to indicate that the regulatory framework for these two courses is different. The students will be registered at two different universities with two different sets of terms & conditions and regulations.

We are now far enough down the OfS registration process that no new students should be able to enrol at an unregistered provider and get student finance support. One provider, St Patricks, is advertising HNDs with a clear indication there are student loans available but makes no mention of the provider at which the students will be registered.

Concerns, often raised by Jim Dickinson on Wonkhe, about parts of the student information provision are amplified in collaborations. If Student Protection Plans appear to have weaknesses when in a provider, that is worse in a subcontracted provider where a corresponding local plan is hard to find.

Table 6 of the HESES return data was a poor proxy for a register of collaborative provision, but it’s not in this year’s data. Hopefully it will not be the last comprehensive listing of provision in England. OfS will have a record of partnerships through its reportable events scheme, but these are private communications. I’d prefer a dynamic, and accurate, register. But, if that’s not coming, OfS should require a commitment that both partners should provide clear information, such that an applicant will be know which provider they will be a student at, especially if there is an award to be made by it.

Utility of Universities

If you were thinking of setting up a new university or, if in England, just a new HE provider, then you’d want to think about its purpose. I’ve discussed before the challenges of new providers (and will do again) but here I want to look at a challenge from the historical record.

It’s generally agreed among historians of higher education in the USA that the founding of the Johns Hopkins University is a very important step in the development of the research university, now the most prestigious form of higher education on the planet. While some have revised the absolute extent of its influence, it still stands as a key moment. It comes with a well developed creation story, a key part of which is the recruitment of Daniel Coit Gilman as its first President. Gilman is generally placed in a pantheon of the leading college and university presidents at a time of great transformation in US HE in the last quarter of the 19th Century.

Gilman gave a speech on the The Utility of Universities. It was not his speech at the inauguration in 1876 but one given in 1885 when comments made about the university ‘seemed to call for a new exposition of its principles and aims’.

To be concerned in the establishment and development of a university is one of the noblest and most important tasks ever imposed on a community or on a body of [people]*. It is an undertaking which calls for the exercise of utmost care, for combination, coöperation, liberality, inquiry, patience, reticence, exertion, and never-ceasing watchfulness. It involves perplexities, delays, and risks. Mistakes cannot possibly be avoided; heavy responsibility is never absent. But history and experience light up the problem; hope and faith give animation to the buildings when they are weary and depressed.

Gilman, 1898 p45

Gilman recounts the history of universities, noting that some others, such as Berlin, were founded at the ‘close of a sharp social crisis’ (p53). He asks that the new university be judged by many measures, but that ‘a generation is the briefest period for a fair review’ (p54). If the gaps between QAA reviews may now be that long, he also had views on metrics:

Here let me protest against the common method of estimating intellectual work by numerical standards alone. I have heard it said that some [people] are possessed by a statistical devil. They can only think in figures; they will ask … of a library, how many volumes are there; or an orchestra, how many pieces; of a college, how many students. I have known the expenses of an institution made a dividend, and the number of scholars the divisor, the quotient representing the cost of each pupil. All of this is wrong, absolutely wrong. If such a standard were allowable, the largest number of scholars taught by the cheapest teacher would be the greatest success.

Gilman, 1898, p54

Gilman was busy spending the greatest fortune ever given to a university, but had come from California where he had encountered such attitudes. Unless a new provider in England were given such a similar fortune, there would need to be a similar accounting.

Gilman was clear that as well as the benefit to individuals, a university benefited society. They did this through the ‘acquisition, conservation, refinement, and distribution of knowledge’ (p55). A new English provider might not need to address all four of these functions, but Gilman placed the advancement of knowledge first. It is this commitment, that ‘every professor must be a student’, that made Johns Hopkins into a model for the research university.

At the time, however, the major controversy was on the choice of subjects. The American college was firmly moving away from its traditional single course and Gilman explained the ‘circle of sciences’ which should be part of their teaching. But the teaching was always connected back to discovery, to the Humboltdian vision of students and staff in an unceasing process or inquiry.

It’s unlikely that any future new English provider will ever be given as much latitude as Gilman was in Baltimore. Local authorities will box them in with business plans, companies will demand job-ready graduates, the regulator will set them a process that requires at least a year to complete. But, for those willing to try, remember Gilman: the establishment and development of a university is one of the noblest and most important tasks ever imposed on a community or on a body of people.

*Gilman writes solely about men. That was the norm in the late 19th century but I find it problematic in the early 21st century, so I’ve changed it.

Reference Gilman, D C (1898) University Problems in the United States, New York, Century co

New Providers: Planning or markets?

We need more higher education provision. Away from the people still banging on about Tony Blair’s 50% target, we need to start having an urgent strategic discussion as to how the English government is going to handle places in higher education over the next five years. We’re going to need many more places.

Just as the 50% target didn’t actually mean people doing three year residential undergraduate degrees in a town different to the one they currently live in, this is still the gold standard of expectations, and very likely to be the one which doesn’t result in a ‘low value’ outcome.

If the government is committed to closing the participation gap at a time when there will be a growth in the number of 18 year olds, then it will face an inevitable call to expand the number of places available for people to study. The question will be what kind of places in what kind of providers? How will the government support the expansion? What can history tell us about the successful way of doing this?

Making New Institutions

This is the the favoured model, particularly of local politicians, but is rare in the history of English HE. The UGC ran an exercise to create new universities, providing them with the capital funds and promises of funded student places at a time of surplus demand. There are two key difficulties with the prospect of running this again. It worked because there was a competition in which the local backers drew up the plan, showing how committed they were and how competent. It also worked because it was a nationally funded scheme run by a planning body and not by the ministry.

Founding new institutions is tricky. Despite a lot of government support since 2012, new institutions haven’t exactly fired into life. The standard-bearers for new places aren’t making much headway. The New College of the Humanities is a pretty different beast to the one so thoroughly promoted – sold to an American university, it’s now looking to get into degree apprenticeships. The Hereford scheme, with millions of government money, is still not properly advertising for its degree course which remains subject to validation.

Promoting Existing Institutions

This is the traditional model: find an existing provider and grow it into a larger HE institution.

This the model being used to grow new Institutes of Technology. There are 12, and apparently 8 more are coming. They are a fascinating hybrid, a mixture of local initiative and central planning. What they are most emphatically not, is the market in operation. There’s strong similarities with the exercises run to create the CATs and the Polytechnics – central government choosing from bids with half an eye on geographic distribution. Although they were supposed to be launched in the autumn, not much happened (except the host of one of them, Barking and Dagenham College, was refused admission to the OfS register).

There are FE colleges with a large amount of HE provision, perhaps a model is to promote them as proper hybrid institutions.

Spinning off new institutions

Probably the most successful current model is the spin-off. Here an existing provider supports provision in another part of the country. We have plenty of these University Centres, offering locally-based HE. These probably split into three categories: branch campuses; single FE & HE provider partnerships and FE Colleges with multiple HE provider links.

Branches have different types, of course. Coventry has developed its business model so that its group can support branches in Scarborough and Dagenham. In effect UA92 is a branch campus of Lancaster. The London branch campuses have had different measures of success, Liverpool being the latest to withdraw from their’s.

Local authorities are playing a key part in this form of provision; Trafford’s ambition to have a re-development partner lies at the heart of the UA92 foundation. Sometimes this is never gets going; Basingstoke & Deane’s unfulfilled vision for an HE provider is exceeded by the serial failure of Swindon to get a university. But sometimes the authority’s vision is for something grander. Both Milton Keynes and Peterborough have university centres, but they want more – they want universities more on the model of the UGC-created new universities.

Peterborough’s existing partners are both OfS registered and its university centre has achieved that too, but it wants to re-tender for a HE provider. In a recent presentation it’s clear that it will go ahead with the capital project and with its desired curriculum model before appointing a provider. It’s not clear how this ‘decoupling’ the HE provider will sit with OfS’s registration process.

The OfS registration process is necessarily rigorous but is turning out to be longer than predicted. If the Government needs more provision quickly, especially in towns that might not have had HE before, it needs to find a reliable way of promoting that. It might also need to accept that it needs to have someone undertake some planning: it might not be sensible to allow local authorities to hope that they will develop completely new research intensive universities with STEM faculties.

The question is who will do this? OfS is a regulator, not a funder and certainly not a planner. Government hasn’t got a great track-record here – attempts to plonk universities in politically advantageous areas are unlikely to work. Even ministers are prone to grandiose gestures (such as an MIT for the North). We need a way to expand HE that meets all those OfS conditions from the outset, so surely the best way is to get existing HE providers? They should probably look the universities but also the larger other providers, to lead the way. But it needs planning, the market hasn’t really helped here.

University Chancellors – a non-political, non-controversial role?

The role of chancellor is one of the oldest identified posts in our universities.  It pre-dates the university, as a key part of the teaching at the early universities of Paris and Oxford was theology, they came under the discipline of the diocesan chancellor.  An early privilege that the universities won was to appoint their own chancellor, rather than be subject to the bishop’s officer.

For hundreds of years, the post of chancellor was held on a short term, but that changed with John Fisher, bishop of Rochester. His engagement with Cambridge was deep: a fellow, professor, president of a college and vice-chancellor, he was elected chancellor in 1504. Ten years later he was appointed for life, a role he would hold until 1535. In that year Fisher was, despite being made a cardinal, executed for treason.

Having appointed its first chancellor on a long-term basis, the University of Cambridge embarked on a spectacular series of appointments of the highest men in the land, many of whom shared Fisher’s fate (but without the saintliness).

  • Thomas Cromwell
  • Stephen Gardiner
  • Edward Seymour
  • John Dudley
  • Reginald Pole
  • William Cecil
  • Robert Devereux

The three on this list who were not executed are Bishop Gardiner, who was deposed both as bishop of Winchester and University Chancellor under Edward VI to be restored under Mary I. Cardinal Pole was appointed to the chancellor’s role of both universities under Mary I after exile under Edward VI. William Cecil, Lord Burlieigh, was a safer choice, but Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was not. Chancellors of the University of Cambridge in the Sixteenth Century are guaranteed to feature in your favourite Tudor drama.

The Seventeenth Century was slightly more settled for Cambridge, although the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated in 1628 and the Duke of Monmouth executed in 1865. It’s Oxford’s Chancellors who take a staring role in the Civil wars.

William Laud, Chancellor of the University of Oxford

William Laud was, like John Fisher, deeply involved in his university; president of his college for ten years and, as both Chancellor and Archbishop, an active reformer of the University. The Laudian Code, the statutes he reorganised for Oxford, remained in force for over 200 years. Some of his reforms were less welcome; the ‘Popish’ porch he had built for the University Church was cited in his trial for treason, he was removed from the Chancellorship in 1641 and executed in 1645.

Laud’s Successor, Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke was removed by the Royalists and replaced by Wiliam Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who was then replaced by Philip Herbert restored to the role. On his death he was replaced by first Oliver and then Richard Cromwell, who left to be replaced by William Seymour restored to the role. Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon replaced him, but had to leave the role when forced into exile (which had an indirect benefit as the funds from his History of the Rebellion were a major benefaction to the university). After his impeachment for high treason in 1715 the University replaced James Butler, Duke of Ormond, with his brother Charles Butler, Earl of Arran. Thereafter it has had chancellors drawn entirely from men who’ve held the highest political offices, with the controversies that comes from that (including Lord North losing the American colonies).

The modern universities joined this tradition, converting the presidents of their governors into chancellors. The conversion from a more active role leading the governors, meant the chancellors were active in the university, Joseph Chamberlain being a driving force in creating the University of Birmingham.

Joseph Chamberlain, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham

A high-profile politician could bring excitement as well as controversy; there’s a Pathe news clip of Winston Churchill being enthusiastically greeted by students at Bristol for his installation as chancellor in 1929.

There were some powers retained by chancellors, in 1922 the Marquis of Curzon tried to limit the term of office of an unpopular vice-chancellor at Oxford. Over time, the direct power of chancellors in universities has declined, but their representative role, especially among members of the House of Lords has been maintained. They may also play a role outside the formal ceremonial aspects of presiding over some graduation ceremonies, often as an ambassador.

Chancellors come from all sorts of backgrounds; academia, arts and broadcasting, business, church, law, politics and members of the royal family. Most of them uncontroversial.

But, at time of writing, I can find no current politicians who are chancellors. Shami Chakrabarti left the role of Chancellor at Essex on appointment to a front bench role in the labour party.

Appointed by the University’s Senate and Council, John will succeed Shami Chakrabarti who steps down from her role after the July 2017 graduation ceremonies following her appointment to the Shadow Cabinet.

Which non-controversial, non-political, figure had Essex found? John Bercow, then Speaker of the House of Commons. Perhaps he’ll have been the last frontline politician to hold a chancellorship or two (he’s chancellor at Bedfordshire as well as Essex).

Mythical university origins

There are plenty of myths about universities. Paul Greatrix captures some contemporary myths in this blog. But these are small beer compared to the semi-official myths that our oldest universities cultivated about their own origins.

The advantages to claims of longevity come from both pride and the status conferred by seniority. Many universities today trace their origins back to organisations that were founded long before they were recognised as universities. In some cases there is an established linkage; classes in a mechanics institute became the basis of a technical college which one day became a university. That’s not proper myth making. For that you need the audacity of our oldest universities, during the age of proper myth making.

The period that saw the development of these myths was perfectly happy with the notion that England was part of a sceptred isle, a precious stone set in the silver sea. Divinely appointed monarchs were descended from king David, the country was founded by noble stock, the Church the true inheritors of Christianity. The king’s universities, the bastion of the Church and educator of the latest noble stock, sprung from the same heroic background. These were extraordinary times, the monarchy, church and country were all under extraordinary pressure, and appeals to ancient heroes excusable, if unlikely to be true.

There was already a well established myth about king Alfred and the University of Oxford. University College happily acknowledged the king as its founder, helping to advance its claim to be the oldest college. The claims had been made in print, but William Camden’s 1603 edition of Asser’s Life of king Alfred included a new paragraph.

In the year of our Lord 886, the second year of the arrival of St Grimbald in England, the University of Oxford was begun … John, monk of the church of St David, giving lectures in logic, music and arithmetic; and John, the monk, colleague of St Grimbald, a man of great parts and a universal scholar, teaching geometry and astronomy before the most glorious and invincible King Alfred.

The story of king Alfred was plausible, involving St Grimbald, an adviser to the king and abbot of the new minster in Winchester. Unfortunately it had not appeared in any of the earlier transcripts of the oldest surviving manuscript. Neither had this from a later edition, revising the story further:

In the same year there arose a foul and deadly discord at Oxford, between Grimbald, with those learned men whom he had brought with him, and the old scholars whom he had found there, who, on his arrival, refused altogether to embrace the laws, modes, and forms of praelection instituted by the same Grimbald.. The substance of the dispute was this: the old scholars contended, that literature had flourished at Oxford before the coming of Grimbald, … They also proved and showed, by the undoubted testimony of ancient annals, that the orders and institutions of that place had been sanctioned by certain pious and learned men, as for instance by Saint Gildas, Melkinus, Nennius, Kentigern, and others, who had all grown old there in literature, and happily administered everything there in peace and concord; and also, that Saint Germanus had come to Oxford, and stopped there half a year, at the time when he went through Britain to preach against the Pelagian heresy; he wonderfully approved of the customs and institutions above-mentioned.

St Grimbald has lost his role as founder, now he is reformer. In this version there were already scholars in Oxford, and they were part of a tradition going back to St Germanus. Germanus had been a bishop who visited Britain after the retreat of the Roman legions in the 420s. Why would Oxford need to claim that a passing bishop found Oxford university in operation in the fifth century?

Here is the opening part of a history of the University of Cambridge from Edmund Carter from 1753:

I shall now proceed to give my readers an account of that famous UNIVERSITY, which is equalled by none in Europe, except it be by her Sister Oxford; and, even of her, she has the seniority by 265 years
Her first original is said to be about AD 536, when one Cantabers a Spaniard, was a governor under Arthur, king of the South Britains…
he procured Philosophers from Athens (where in his youth he had been a student) and placed them therin, by whose great care and dilgence, it was shortly after much noted for learned men

Carter proceeds to explain that he is ‘warrented by the authority of pure history’ to assert the priority of Cambridge over all foreign universities. As further evidence, he cites that Paris was founded in the reign of Charlemagne (it wasn’t) by disciples of Bede, and he has a letter from Alcuinus that says that Bede got his doctors degree from Cambridge in 692.

Even universities that no longer existed got in on this. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a source for many of the myths, and he mentions a king Bladud (the father of Lear). Embellished much later, in its final version Bladud returns from study in Athens, with four philosophers, and founds a university at Stamford, which flourished until it was suppressed by Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

So, time to set the matter beyond all doubt. In 1772 John Peshall publishes a History of the University of Oxford, focused on the period ‘to the death of William the Conquerer’, Peshall, who mentions the Bladud and Stamford story, provides this story of the first founding of Oxford.

Circ AM 2855, and 1180 before Christ, Gerion and 12 more learned Greeks accompanied the Conqueror Brutus, into this isle; – others, soon after, delighted with a relation of the country came and seated themselves with them, at a place, the most agreeable and convenient, at that time, for study, called in their native or mother tongue, Greeklade, &c – a word made upon the occasion.

Further details follow, including that the scholars wore a form of toga and a hat that developed into the mortar board.

Before the Roman Time this had been called the Literata, the learned city.  The most celebrated Athens, Inclytum Oxonium – the Theatre and Emporium of all Sciences, – the Seat of Muses, – the Fountain of Learning; with other such like honourable terms.  But in the Roman Times … this city was miserably burnt, and the university sunk and perished with it.

In this way, Oxford trumps Cambridge. You may say that you were founded in the time of king Arthur, we were founded by Trojans. We’re so old, the Romans burnt us down.

Although it’s hard to countenance these stories now, it would be have been harder for the universities to absent themselves from the national shared consciousness at the time, a time of profound crisis. Although these stories lost their credibility quickly, they reinforce our tendency to make our universities seem as old as possible. So, in Nottingham, if only we could find a plausible link to an heroic mythical figure…