Since Macaulay: 'New' University of the mid-nineteenth century


At the time when the expansion of Company state in India brought about political, economic and social changes that led to a rapid transformation of Indian education system, the idea of a University was also rapidly undergoing a change in Europe and North America. Curiously, the history of Indian education has been conventionally analysed without reference to these developments, except for the obvious parallels between the newly established London University and the University of Calcutta, as the latter was based on the model of the former. But even such a parallel was conventionally used to highlight operational similarities rather than philosophical ones. However, the discussions in Indian higher education during the formative years of the Company administration was always global, as the British policy-makers brought with them the ideas and practices of the mother country, British parliament sought to influence policy in line with its ideological persuasion and educated Indians looked to Europe for models of intellectual development. Rammohan’s invocation of Baconian philosophy was not an isolated example, nor was Wellesley’s abortive project completely without influence. The British policy-makers in India, the Missionaries as well as Indians themselves were looking for ideas to build a modern higher education system, and they sought these ideas from within the development of European higher education.

The roots of the transformation of the idea of the university in Europe could be traced back to the transformation of the idea of knowledge, and more specifically, how its unity was perceived. The medieval framework of the unity of knowledge arising from the text - The Book - was turned on its head by the Baconian conception of Science, which was to be an approach that made the ‘tree of knowledge’ with its various disciplines, possible. This rejection of ‘bookish knowledge’ coincided with the historical moment of the proliferation of print technologies and books, creating a framework of tension about organising and disseminating knowledge. Chad Wellmon, in his study of the origins of Research University in Germany, traces the roots of modern university to information overload of the Eighteenth century and the newly discovered imperative of the universities to keep pace with the production of knowledge. The German Research University ideal envisioned knowledge production as the key function of the university, and this would have a deep impact on the Nineteenth century conversations about the role and functions of the university, not just in the United States, where the influence of the German ideal was unambiguously obvious, but also in Britain, where the ancient universities would face the calls for reforms, and would be reformed, through acts of Parliament, by the mid-Nineteenth century.

At the end of the Eighteenth century, the aristocratic state in England was opening up recruitment and there was a general consensus about reducing patronage and encouraging ability, a trend that gathered momentum under Pitt and younger (and the effect of which would also be seen in his India Bill of 1784, that instructed East India Company to make provisions to train its staff). In various departments, the Admiralty, the Plantations Office, the Board of Customs, depoliticising recruitment and day-to-day operations were being actively discussed, and the Napoleonic War introduced the need of efficiency and competence, though mostly in theory and not in practice, in the ancient universities of England.

However, there were other significant changes were also taking place in the British universities in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries. The significant rise in enrollments, with new students arriving with the middle class and evangelical background, bringing with them a serious earnest competitiveness, transformed the university life. The Honours examinations, were introduced first in Cambridge in 1747 (‘mathematical tripos’) and then in Oxford in 1801 (the classical honours), reportedly to discipline an undisciplined student body. The examinations, designed to give the more diligent students an opportunity to distinguish themselves, however, were not central to the university life, a fact that changed in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries, with the arrival of this new group of students. By the 1830s, a full half of all students at these ancient universities were taking the Honours examinations. Though only a small number of fellowships at these universities were open to all comers, cramming for examinations - for achieving the Honours would be a required first step for fellowship - became central to students’, as well as the tutors’, lives. The introduction of examinations also led to the formalisation of the curriculum, which often led to curriculum aimed at ‘narrow preparation and early specialisation’ and revival of scholastic logic. The advantages of a narrow curriculum were soon recognised in the explosive environment of pre-reform England when the spectre of Jacobinism was all too real.  Sheldon Rothblatt observed:
The general domestic crisis in England seemed to require an educational policy that put undergraduates to work without allowing them too much of an opportunity for free-wheeling discussions, at least not at the expense of the official curriculum. Within the first forty years of the nineteenth century the examination systems became progressively narrower in concentration and technical in nature and spirit... In the course of time, written examinations replaced the oral ones at both universities because of the large number of students to be examined, and because the written examinations were or appeared to be far more objective.

With an increased emphasis on examinations, a cult of ‘proficiency’ developed. The end product of a liberal education was no longer deemed to be a worldly social type, what was its Georgian ideal. The ideas of faculty psychology, that of developing various ‘faculties’ in an orderly and scientific manner, with the teacher assuming the critical role of declining minds and deciding which faculties to develop, came to dominate the key educational debates. The idea of education as a discipline of mind training emerged in the context.

While these developments were playing out in Oxford and Cambridge, a new university was being conceived in London. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the ‘penny universities’, or coffee houses, and some teaching institutions were all London had for higher education, as then prevailing ideas of students as troublemakers (borne out by the experiences of medieval universities of Paris and Oxford) commanded universities being kept out of Capital cities. The inspiration for the London University came from Germany, as the proposer, Thomas Campbell, visited the University of Bonn. His letter in The Times on 9th February 1825 argued against the prejudices about universities in Capital towns and observed that the Germans ‘now find the students of Berlin and Vienna the most regular living youth in all Germany’.

He further observed that
London contains the greatest assemblage in the world of those small comfortable trading fortunes which place their owners in a station where intellectual accomplishments can too easily be dispensed with.

His recommendation was to establish a university ‘for effectively and multifariously teaching, examining, exercising and rewarding with honours in the liberal arts and sciences, the youth of our middling rich people, between the ages of 13 or 16 and 20, or later’. The letter was addressed to Henry Brougham, an MP and education campaigner, who took up the cue and brought together various groups, Jews, Catholics and nonconformists (represented by Zachary Macaulay, Thomas’ father), who were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge at the time. A subscription was raised and eventually, the university was ready to open its doors in 1828. The original council of the university included George Birkbeck, the founder of London Mechanics Institute, which offered general education to ‘respectable mechanics’, offering the diversity, as Campbell originally intentioned, to include everyone between ‘mechanics and the extremely rich’. The university did not have a religious entrance requirement, which gave rise to the epithet, ‘the godless institution of Gower Street’, which stuck.

Despite calling itself a university, the institution was a joint-stock company and did not have a charter to grant degrees. Its several attempts at securing one were blocked not just by the opposition of Oxford and Cambridge, but also by various London Medical schools, which objected to ‘a joint stock company taking the appellation of a university’. Finally, under a compromise reached in June 1835 with the Whig government of Lord Melbourne, the ‘university’ accepted to be superseded by a government-backed new London University, which incorporated the institution as well as the other London institution called King’s College, an establishment-backed Anglican institution with a charter. The new London University was to become a federal body conducting examinations and the older, ‘joint stock’ institution, was to be christened the University College London and continue as a teaching institution. Accordingly, the new, state-backed, University of London was given a charter and started conferring degrees from 1836.

The nineteenth century was a time of great debate and renewal of the university idea. Industrialisation, the professionalisation of intellectual life, the spread of print and information overload, emergence of political parties, free trade ideology and imperialism came to shape the new idea of the university. India was not immune to these global forces, but rather, in the receiving end of the great change through the agency of colonialism. While the model of the new University of London was adopted in designing the new Indian universities, the form, in the peculiar context of Colonialism and historical development of Indian education.

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