A University for Subject People: The story of the foundation of Calcutta University

I have traced the development of Indian Higher Education under a series of posts under two sections - The Road to Macaulay and Since Macaulay. This final post is about the formation of the Calcutta University, which is a unique university as it was formed solely with the purpose of granting degrees which would qualify the recipients for government jobs. It followed the University of London model, but in the limitations of its purpose, it was rather unique. However, it was not inconsequential or a temporary affair, but, I think, the first consumer university in the world. Here is the story of its foundation.
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Lord Hardinge’s administration enhanced the bureaucratic-educational connections further  by making English education as a qualification for government employment in 1844

.. it is highly desirable to afford it every reasonable encouragement by holding out to those who have taken advantage of the opportunity of instruction afforded to them a fair prospect of employment in the public services and thereby not only to reward individual merit but to enable the state to profit as largely and as early as possible..

a resolution that led H R James, the Principal of Presidency College, to observe ‘it has given English education its value in terms of livelihood’. The Council of Education, as the erstwhile General Committee was now called, set up a test examination that was meant for the students of government colleges, sparking off protests from Alexander Duff and other missionary educators who felt, with justification, the students at Hindu College and other government institutions were being accorded undue privilege.

This was the background of the plan drawn up by the Council of Education, in 1845, to establish a university in Calcutta. The preamble of the plan highlights the issue of ‘justice’ :

The present advanced state of Education in the Bengal Presidency, with the large and annually increasing number of highly educated pupils, both in public and private institutions, renders it not only expedient and advisable, but a matter of strict justice and necessity, to confer upon them some mark of distinction, by which they may be recognized as persons of liberal education and enlightened minds, capable from the literary and scientific training they have undergone, of entering at once upon the active duties of life; of commencing the practical pursuit of the learned professions, including in this description the business of instructing the rising generation; of holding higher offices under Government open to natives, after due official qualification; or of taking the rank in society accorded in Europe, to all members and graduates of the university.

This mark was to be granted by a ‘central university, armed with the power of granting degrees in Arts, Science, Law, Medicine, and Civil Engineering, incorporated by a special act of the Legislative Council of India’.

Significantly, the Council suggested

After carefully studying the laws and constitution of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge with those of the recently established University of London, the latter alone appears adapted to the wants of the native community.

The reason for such a choice, it appears, was the function the university was expected to fulfill, that of provider of equal treatment of education regardless of the institution attended.

The benefits of these examinations to be extended to ALL Institutions, whether Government or private, approved of by the Senate, provided the candidates from such Institutions conform to such regulations as may be enacted, respecting the course, extent, and duration of study, with the certificates that will be required, authority being granted for the issue of the same.

The Council was conscious of the significance of the scheme being proposed, ‘carrying out which would form one of the most important eras in the history of education in India’.

It would open the paths of honour and distinction alike to every class and every institution; would encourage a high standard of qualification throughout the Presidency, by bestowing justly earned rewards.. It would remove most of the objections urged against the existing system of examination of candidates for public employment, without lowering the standard of information required; and would in a very few years produce a body of native public servants, superior in character, attainments and efficiency to any of their predecessors.

The Council reminded the government that the plan would cost little and could be paid for by establishment of a ‘fee fund’ and reminded that the great promises brought about by railroad would soon make available the benefits of this institution to the farthest corners of Bengal Presidency, which, at the time, covered most of the Northern and Northwestern India.

This plan, however, found little acceptance in London and the Council was informed that the Company Directors did not consider the issue of establishing a university in Calcutta at present. However, though it was rejected, this would form the basis of the plan endorsed by Sir Charles Wood in his despatch of 1854.

The issue of university foundation was revisited in Wood’s Despatch, a document issued in the name of the President of the Board of Control, Charles Wood, and signed by Board of Directors of the East India Company on the 19th July 1854. The document marked a significant departure in Indian educational policy by tearing up the earlier policies of ‘downward filtration’ and ‘engraftment’ and recommended the foundation of the University of Calcutta. Instead, it recommended a system of education around vernacular schools, a mass education system not dissimilar to the schemes proposed in Minutes by the Committee of Council on Education (2nd April 1853) instituting a grants system to support schools in Agricultural districts and unincorporated towns. In the spirit of promotion of private enterprise, the Despatch implicitly endorsed the Grant-in-Aid system proposed by missionaries under the leadership of Alexander Duff, which made private institutions eligible for government aid. For its revolutionary impact, the document was hailed as the ‘Magna Charta’ of Indian education.

The policy contained in this document came from detailed testimonies gathered during the renewal of East India Company’s charter in 1853. Alexander Duff spent several months previously in England to create a favourable opinion for the cause of foundation of a University, which would conduct examinations for students from all colleges and thereby establish do justice to the education offered at missionary institutions. Important contributions were made by JC Marshman, FJ Mouat (the author of the previous, aborted plan of University of Calcutta), Macaulay, Charles Trevelyan and others. The Despatch came in the backdrop of the first stirrings of political activity among Indian middle classes, which came in the form of Madras Native Association (founded in 1849) and more directly on the issue of government employment, Bombay Association founded in 1852.

A full year before the Despatch was issued, Charles Wood spoke at the House of Commons on the issue of the governance in India on 3rd June 1853. While he covered education only briefly in his speech, pleading ignorance on the topic and ‘as we have not entered into an inquiry with that subject yet’. However, he let it be known that he had ‘satisfactory accounts of the Missionary schools, in which the Bible is ordinarily used with the full knowledge of the Hindoos’. However, this speech gave an indication of prevailing ‘free trade’ environment that came to define the Indian education policy in the despatch, as Wood spoke about the reforms of Indian Civil Service

..the admission to Haileybury be thrown open to unlimited competition...there is to be no exclusion, and no favour. Merit, and merit alone, is to be the door to the civil service in India.

This spirit of free competition and backing of private enterprise, the ethics of post-repeal politics in England, that would shape Indian education policy in the Despatch. It referred to the Plan of 1845

Some years ago, we declined to accede to a proposal made by the Council of Education, transmitted to us, with the recommendation of your government, for the institution of an university in Calcutta. The rapid spread of liberal education among the natives of India since that time, the high attainment shown by the native candidates for government scholarships, and by native students in private institutions, the success of medical colleges, and the requirements of an increasing European and Anglo-Indian population, have led us to the conclusion that time has now arrived for establishment of universities in India..  

The despatch wholly endorsed the earlier plan to set up the University of Calcutta following the London University model, offering degrees to students of ‘affiliate institutions’, thus setting up what Eric Ashby called ‘a free trade in degrees’. Based on its supplemental charter that expanded its scope, by 1853, the University of London had gone beyond its constituent colleges and affiliated 30 additional colleges teaching Arts and the Law and 68 medical schools across Great Britain and Ireland. The Despatch also recommended the foundation of universities in Bombay and Madras, closely following the recommendations of Charles Trevelyan among others, of the need of setting up universities in all Presidency towns.

This plan satisfied Alexander Duff’s demands of ‘equality of degrees’ though it did not endorse the introduction of Bible lessons in government institutions after his proposals. However, Wood reasoned that the University of London model was specifically used as it was non-denominational, as he wrote to Frederick Halliday

We have taken for the model of our Indian university, the London University, because its framework is quite independent of religious belief, which is indispensable in India.. [Y]our college may be Christian, Mahometan, or Hindoo, or admitting all if you can manage it(which we clearly cannot do here [in England]); but leaving all religious instruction (if any) to the college, the University is to be open alike to all comers from any of the affiliated Institutions.

The plan clearly had a limited scope of the University in mind, incurring only ‘a trifling expenditure’, as Charles Hay Cameron, a former President of the Council of Education in India and one of the key experts Wood consulted in drawing up the Charter explained in his Address to the Parliament in 1855

I am almost afraid that the grandeur of the prospect thus opened may induce Parliament to suppose that it can not be realised without an expenditure too great to be contemplated with reference to the financial position of India..The University of Calcutta, as proposed by the Council of Education while I was its President, did not necessarily involve any new expense. The same instruction would be given, by the same professors and masters, in the same buildings, after the establishment of such a University, as now. The University was to consist of examiners..

The university, in this conception, was to become a bureaucratic apparatus, not unlike the Council of Education or the erstwhile General Committee of Public Instruction, enabled by a Charter to grant degrees.


Based on the recommendations of the Despatch, the Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, set up a committee following his Minute dated 10th December 1854, with a mandate to draw up plans for the establishment of three Presidency universities, in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. After the plans thus drawn up were approved by the Court of Directors, a bill was passed in the Legislative Council of India incorporating the University of Calcutta and it received the assent of the Governor General, who signed it on January 24th 1857. Just after the Company sepoys mutinied in Meerut in May 1857, the bill for University of Bombay received assent on July 18th and that of the University of Madras got signed on the 5th of September that year.

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