It is an institute of higher education, responsible for taking students from the schools and giving them, through teaching, research and studies, an extended education which may lead to a Degree. The difference between a College and a University is that there may be many colleges in one university campus, each teaching different disciplines. Universities used to be rare; Europe in the sixteenth century founded and built one or two leading universities in each country, according to wealth or lack of it. Now the higher education colleges sprout everywhere, and their value and standards have dropped as a result.
The European Universities developed naturally under the system of Studia generalia, schools that were open to scholars and would-be scholars from all countries, though they were originally established to educate priests and monks beyong standards attainable in monastic or cathedral schools.
They were once merely societies or ‘guilds’ formed mostly by foreigners, banded together for protection in a strange (or barbarous) land. By the thirteenth century the so-called ‘universities of scholars’ had developed into corporate bodies with an admirably defined administrative structure. In Bologna and Paris students from foreign countries were especially welcome and given special privileges, such as right of trial for misdemeanours (in an ecclesiastical court) and the right to strike against conditions that might be less than satisfactory. Severe discipline was maintained and expected, and universities developed the ‘proctor’ system for policing a possibly unruly thousand young males.
Birching at Oxford and Cambridge Universities was still employed until well into the eighteenth century, even if the offending student was more than twenty years old.
The earlies European Universities were Bologna (founded 1088), Paris (1150), Prague (1348), Vienna (1365) and Heidelberg (1386). It was at Heidelberg that the tradition of face-scarring with a sabre in a duel was established that is so entrancing for Victorian novelists. In England Oxford (1150) and Cambridge (1209), where college organisation developed rapidly and efficiently, were followed by St. Andrews (1411) and Glasgow (1451) in Scotland, and in Ireland by Trinity College, Dublin in 1591.
Medieval university learning was based was based on the ‘seven liberal arts’, a curriculum divided into a higher division called the Quadrivium (arithmetic, astonomy, music and geometry), and a lower division called the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic).
American Universities evolved from colleges founded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – (the ‘Ivy League’ QV.); Harvard (1636) was the first. Italy’s Salerno, influenced by Arab culture, had a famous medical school fully established by the eleventh century. During the seventeenth century, education at all universities was naturally influenced by the spread of scientific knowledge. Some colleges were established where no actual students were admitted! The fellows and dons at these establishments were there for study and research, and the publication of their discoveries (All Soul’s, Oxford)
By the year 1800 the great European medieval universities such as Bologna, Paris and Oxford has greatly increased in size and curriculum. Both Europe and the United States favoured traditional courses in grammar, logic, rhetoric, Greek, Latin and mathematics. Undergraduates who became graduates (after the Degree exams) tended to go into the Church or government service. This was a sizeable waste of mostly good teaching and lengthy studies. But a university education was still very much available for the elite, difficult to undertake for the poor or uncomfortably off, and impossible for the young of the underclass; however brilliant they might have proved to be. Around one hundred and sixty universities existed by 1800, but higher education expanded at a faster and faster rate during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the mid-1990s at least five thousand universities thrived (some formed by many different colleges) with more than four hundred established in the United States alone.
In the late 20th century and the opening years of the 21st, expansion has been accelerated by the granting of university status to academies, polytechnics and technical colleges in Britain; and there is the system of the ‘Open University’, which uses radio, television and modern telcommunications for advanced distance-learning. This was first introduced in Britain in 1969 and has much developed in many other countries since.
The opinion is however held in many countries, if not all the advanced ones, that too many universities are not necessarily a Good Thing. Stick-in-the-muds insist that whereas it is acceptable that a small proportion of the population should have an advanced education, taking them perhaps to 23 or 24 years of age, it is a Bad Thing that a country’s labour forces should be reduced by such a percentage. Someone, after all, has to go out to work in order to earn the wages from which a country’s taxes are squeezed. Added to this is the notion that university students have unlimited rights to go on strike, foment demonstrations, behave badly (university students have always behaved badly – it is a part of the tradition), and fail examinations while their parents helplessly look on.