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The medieval European university

Differentiation of the academic system

The emergence of the modern university

Academic systems since World War II


Universities are organizations engaged in the advancement of knowledge; they teach, train, and examine students in a variety of scholarly, scientific, and professional fields. Intellectual pursuits in universities define the highest prevailing levels of competence in these fields. The universities confer degrees and provide opportunities both for members of their teaching staffs and for some of their students to do original research.

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, much diversification has taken place in the disciplines taught and the research conducted in universities. However, there is variation from country to country in the subjects included in the university curriculum; only the humanities and the natural sciences constitute an important part of the curriculum of universities in all countries. The functions performed by the universities in a particular country are related to their position in the total educational system of that country: the functions of these educational systems as wholes are uniform, and universities have to be treated as parts of a more comprehensive system.

Because of their high level of competence, the professional staffs of universities have generally been able to exercise great freedom both in carrying out their scholarly and teaching functions, in recruiting new staff members according to professional standards, and in controlling other university policies. The key prerequisite for this independence is functional specificity; such guildlike traditions in universities as collegiate self-government and the election of deans and rectors do not exist uniformly in all universities and are not as important in safeguarding academic freedom.

The medieval European university

The European university as a distinct type emerged in the twelfth century. Groups of students and masters from all parts of the Christian world gathered in certain cities and organized themselves into corporations (hence the name universitas, meaning a community or corporation of any kind). Of the first two universities, which served as models for the rest, Bologna was mainly a corporation of students (or rather a federation of student corporations), and Paris was principally a corporation of masters. Corporate privileges included jurisdiction in civil and, in certain cases, criminal matters, the granting of degrees, and, in principle, the right to teach in all universities (licentia ubique docendi). The most important safeguard of university integrity was the right to strike or to leave town in protest against some insult to the university. The principal universities were legally recognized as corporations by the pope, and their members were either clerics or were regarded as clerics even when they had not taken orders. The first universities were supervised by the local bishop or by one of his high officials—the chancellor. However, the importance of the chancellor receded quite early, and the elected head of the corporation—the rector—became the principal figure of the university. Sometimes, as at Oxford, the chancellor became an elected official of the corporation. At Bologna, a relatively secular university specializing in law, the chancellorship was mainly an honorific post. The universities thus became to a considerable degree independent of the local church.

The protection of the papacy was, however, often sought by the universities when they came into conflict with local bishops and townspeople, and since the Roman Catholic church considered itself responsible for education, this protection was granted readily. Furthermore, since the universities were international institutions in close contact with each other, and since their scholars and masters wandered from university to university, they served a papal cause: the unification of the Christian world. To the members of the universities this close tie to the papacy was acceptable not only because of the protection it provided but also because it accorded with their belief—at least in the twelfth century—in the essential unity of all knowledge and in faith as the highest order of knowledge. In spite of sporadic clashes, the relationship of the universities to the church and in particular to the papacy was based on mutual consent and common interests. The ties with the church created no feeling of constraint; the universities were able to accommodate all the important intellectual currents of the time, and, until the fifteenth century, any limitations on their secular character were self-imposed, arising from the beliefs to which they subscribed.

The most characteristic aspect of the teaching at medieval universities was the method of study known as scholasticism. This method was, on the one hand, based on authority: the acceptance of the Christian faith, of the Holy Scriptures, and of the works of certain classical authors; on the other hand, it implied an absolute belief in the power of reason, which, if correctly applied, had to lead to the discovery of all truth. Textual exegesis was thus used as a way of asking “questions” about all kinds of problems, which then gave rise to disputations conducted according to accepted laws of logic and, finally, to original solutions (determination).

Although much of this abstract speculation now seems futile, it was carried on in an environment that facilitated the emergence of professional intellectual activity and eventually a series of intellectual revolutions. Scholars discussed the difference between religiously revealed truth and logically discovered truth; they applied dialectical methods to the interpretation of Aristotelian texts and to observed natural phenomena. This led to the emergence of secular thought and to the formulation of physical theories that were important for the genesis of modern natural science.

The medieval university was the organizational form embodying the public recognition of the corporate autonomy of specialized intellectuals who performed important social functions. These intellectuals were mainly theologians, lawyers, and physicians. As a stable social structure with sources of income, buildings, permanent personnel, and legal regulations, the university was able to foster the continuity of the intellectual traditions and the creative intellectual efforts of the age. It also provided a setting for the formation of informal groups; as a permanent enterprise, it made risky or ephemeral ventures possible (an example of a risky venture being the study of natural science).

Differentiation of the academic system

During the period from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, universities, like other successful corporations, became part of the system of estates. Professors claimed hereditary privileges for their posts, using their positions like patrimonies and gaining income from fees, bribes, and even moneylending. Some of them became very rich, and in the carefully graded social hierarchy of the time their status tended to be equated with that of knights.

A development that particularly affected the universities of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge was the rise of colleges. These were originally charitable foundations serving as hostels for needy scholars, but they soon came to be used for academic lectures. (In this way, for example, the Paris faculty of theology and, later, the university as a whole became identified with the college founded in 1253 by Robert de Sorbon.) In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries colleges grew very rich through real-estate operations; like some of the monasteries, they became seigneuries ruled by small oligarchies, and these oligarchies dominated the whole university. The colleges monopolized the teaching of the liberal arts and became institutions that catered to the sons of the privileged classes rather than to the international community of scholars.

While the earliest universities—Bologna, Paris, and Oxford—had been spontaneous gatherings of scholars, from the thirteenth century on universities were deliberately founded to gain the political support of intellectuals, to strengthen Christianity in areas of contact with heretics or Muslims, or to increase local or national prestige. The University of Naples was founded in 1224 by Frederick n as a rival to the influence of the Guelph city of Bologna. The University of Toulouse was founded in 1229 as part of a scheme for recapturing the heretical lands of the Midi for the church. Similar politico-religious considerations led to the establishment of several Spanish universities in the thirteenth century.

Before the fourteenth century, the university movement was predominantly international in character; only Oxford was established as a national university from its very beginning. It was the founding of the University of Prague in 1348—by Pope Clement vi in response to a petition of Charles iv—that marked the beginning of a movement that turned the universities into national institutions. In the course of the next century and a half many universities were established in the German states, in Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, and—after some early faltering—in Poland and Hungary. By the end of the fifteenth century there were 79 universities in Europe.

The extent to which these universities could serve as centers for the development of new ideas was limited. Their chief goal was to prepare men for the professions of law, theology, and medicine, and this precluded the possibility of paying serious attention to intellectual ventures in humanism, natural science, vernacular literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. The flexibility of the universities was further limited by their involvement in the system of estates and in religious controversies. As a result, the intellectual ferment that had started in the universities and had been centered in them until the fifteenth century began to manifest itself both in new types of teaching institutions and in organizations that were primarily engaged in research.

The new teaching institutions were colleges, Gymnasiums, and academies (to be distinguished from learned societies, which were also called academies). They provided a more practical education than the universities and enrolled mainly the sons of the growing middle classes and of the lower gentry. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the most famous among them were the Jesuit colleges in France, the Pietist schools of Germany, and the Dissenting academies in England. Some of these last were relatively secular institutions founded by private educational entrepreneurs. These schools were not universities in the legal sense, since they had no charters of corporation; however, their functions were parallel to those of the university arts faculties, and some of them taught everything that a university did, including theology, law, and medicine.

In the curriculum of the new schools certain innovations were developed, such as the study of Greek, Hebrew, and modern languages, and the new schools were among the first to inaugurate the study of history, modern mathematics, and some natural science. Moreover, they experimented with methods of education, some of which were the precursors of the seminar and the laboratory. Some of the new colleges were devoted to advanced learning for its own sake, the most famous of these being the Collège des Lecteurs Royaux—later the Collège de France—in Paris and Gresham College in London.

Yet these new colleges did no more than the older universities to foster the development of the natural sciences or the new developments in literature, painting, sculpture, and music. It was left to individuals working on their own to cultivate these two areas, although these individuals were usually connected with some learned society or academy. There are interesting parallels between the emergence of learned societies in the seventeenth century and the beginnings of the universities in the twelfth century. The learned societies started as spontaneous gatherings of people who were interested in scholarship and science and who needed an institutional framework both to facilitate the exchange of ideas and to provide support—psychological and, more rarely, material—for their activities.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, the learned societies were granted royal charters and public recognition; princes all over Europe became interested in founding academies. Where there were few savants, as in Russia or Prussia, they were invited to come from other countries. The outstanding scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—men like Oldenburg, Descartes, Leibniz, Euler, and Lagrange—spent much of their time as itinerant savants. Unlike the universities, the academies (with the exception of academies of art) did no teaching. Members were elected in recognition of merit, but some aristocrats were also included.

In England, France, and Italy, the functions of intellectual institutions became differentiated: private colleges took over general higher education; universities trained for the ministry, medicine, and, frequently, the law; while research was undertaken independently by scholars associated with the academies. In the newer and smaller centers of learning (especially in Scotland, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden) the universities continued to combine the three functions. This was probably due partly to their smallness, which did not allow much division of labor, and partly to their newness, which spared them a great deal of the traditionalism based on hereditary privileges and other vested interests. These smaller centers became leaders in the new fields of learning; they taught natural science, medicine, history, and philology at an advanced level, whereas in the great cultural centers of France, England, and Italy these subjects could generally be studied only privately. But in spite of the fact that the superiority of the peripheral universities was so widely recognized that they were able to attract students from foreign countries, they had no influence on the institutional structure of higher learning. Instead of serving as models, they tended to adopt the prestigious and obsolete traditions of the older centers.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the universities were being strongly criticized, and many intellectuals regarded them as moribund institutions. University instruction was under attack because it almost entirely ignored new developments in science and scholarship. This exclusion of the highest levels of intellectual activity from the universities might not in itself have aroused protest (today a similar situation exists in the creative arts) if the universities had not allied themselves, in some of the absolutist countries, with the church and the state in interfering with the freedom of education and publication. In the economically more backward areas, where there were few channels of mobility for talented young people, the universities blocked the only attractive intellectual career opportunities. Many intellectuals, therefore, had the same contempt for the universities that the new entrepreneurs had for the monopolistic guilds, and they envied the privileges of the academies as the middle classes envied the privileges of the aristocracy.

Since the results of university teaching were poor, some critics recommended the replacement of the universities by professional schools. Such schools were indeed established by some of the absolutist monarchs, especially in medicine and in the new profession of civil and mining engineering. In England professional schools arose without the intervention of the state, especially in medicine. Hospitals and proprietary medical schools became the accepted means for medical training in England and spread from there to the United States.

The emergence of the modern university

During the last decade of the eighteenth century the academic system was thoroughly transformed. In France, the obsolete university corporations as well as the academies were abolished in 1793, but in the Napoleonic era they gradually reappeared in a changed form as parts of a centrally conceived and directed system of higher education. The new system was pragmatic, using the different types of institutions that had evolved over the centuries to train people for different purposes. New institutions were also established in response to new needs, and the whole system was placed under the direction of the central civil service.

In Germany, although the mood of the intelligentsia was also revolutionary, a different course was followed. The universities retained their corporate privileges and their place among the traditional estates of society, but their organization was brought into conformity with the administrative realities of modern state financing and supervision. The level of intellectual activity was raised by making the faculties of arts and sciences the central parts of the universities and by appointing members of the new intelligentsia to chairs in these faculties.

In England the transition was gradual. Beginning in the sixteenth century, a great variety of professional and scientific associations had been established there, as in France. But unlike those in France, the English institutions were founded and financed by private individuals. Their increasing prestige, relative to that of the old universities, threatened the intellectual hegemony of the upper classes. About 1840, in response to this threat and to pressure from both the government and from public opinion, the universities began to reform themselves, and by the end of the century they once again dominated the academic scene.

Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, the quality of the German university system became outstanding. The universities were at that time an almost autonomous subsystem of German society. Because of the political and economic backwardness of the German-language area and the consequent shortage of attractive career opportunities, there was a large supply of able aspirants for academic careers. Education and culture became the most effective bonds between the various parts of the politically fragmented nation. The universities were lavishly supported by the different states and were vigorously competitive. Under these conditions, academic interests flourished: new fields of purely scientific interest could develop without having to convince government departments or charitable laymen of their usefulness, and research was recognized as an important function of the university.

The success of the German university system convinced academic public opinion in other countries that an academic system composed of relatively autonomous, multipurpose units was superior to a centrally coordinated system of specialized institutions. The German system came to serve as a model: it was copied in central and northern Europe and decisively influenced the reformation of the English and American academic systems; to a more limited extent, it exerted an influence in eastern Europe (German influence there was somewhat attenuated by that of the French) and on the French, Italian, and Spanish-Portuguese academic traditions. Under the impact of the German innovations, universities consisting of several faculties were re-established in France in 1896. The German system was also adopted in Japan.

Contemporary academic systems . At the end of the nineteenth century there were three influential academic systems: the German, the French, and the English. (The importance of the Italian universities had receded since the sixteenth century; although the United States had evolved the most important features of its academic system, this system was not yet influential.) All the major European systems (as well as the system in the United States) had the following characteristics: education was free of church control; hereditary claims to university posts were abolished; a clear-cut distinction was made between secondary and higher education; modern scientific and humanistic subjects were accorded a central place in the curriculum; and technological studies were given university status.

At present, the typical institution in Germany, England, and the United States is the university in which a wide variety of subjects is taught and in which research is conducted; most of the “pure” subjects and many of the applied ones are covered. In these countries there exist institutes of technology with university standing; the institutes teach many different subjects—often the social sciences and the humanities as well as the natural sciences. Because of the variety of their functions, both universities and institutes have great potentiality for growth. Specialized research and training institutions play a relatively marginal role in these systems.

The special characteristics of the U.S. system evolved between 1860 and 1910. Before this period, the system of higher education consisted principally of church-affiliated colleges and a variety of professional schools. The Morrill Act of 1862 was the first step in the transformation of the system; it provided grants of land to the states to be used or sold for the support of colleges that would emphasize the teaching of agriculture and the “mechanic arts.” This legislation provided an impetus for the development of academic teaching and research in agriculture, as well as in engineering and a variety of other applied fields. In the course of time most of the land-grant colleges developed into full-fledged universities, thus establishing the basis for a wide-spread and relatively open system of higher education. The view that higher education can legitimately be practical and diversified was not confined to the land-grant institutions but was also adopted by many of the older universities. As a result, American universities have become much more differentiated institutions than European ones. They teach and train students at three different levels: a minimally specialized liberal education (bachelor’s degree) such as does not exist in Europe at all; professional training (ll.b., m.d., master’s degree) in a much greater variety of fields than European training offers; and the training of scholars and researchers (ph.d.), of which only the beginnings exist in Europe.

The French system consists of universities that perform teaching functions comparable to those performed by universities elsewhere and a governmental research organization—the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)—that runs parallel to the universities, often employs the same staff as the universities, and provides facilities and funds for research. In addition, there are the Grandes Écoles: the Polytechnique and the École Normale Supérieure provide professional education for a highly selected elite, and the Collège de France and the École Pratique des Hautes Études offer high-level instruction untrammeled by the requirements of degree courses. Furthermore, the Academie Française still has important symbolic functions. In France, each type of institution performs a limited range of functions, and the system as a whole is centrally directed. An essentially similar structure was adopted in the Soviet Union after the Revolution.

The different types of academic systems reflect differences in general social and political organization. In France and the Soviet Union, a central bureaucracy makes academic policy for the whole country, while the United States and Germany have federal political structures and systems of independent, competing universities. The social and political organization of Britain has produced a system that is somewhere between the other two: on the one hand, Britain is a centralized state— London playing a role similar to that of Paris in France—but, on the other hand, there exist important traditions of cultural autonomy in Scotland, Wales, and the centers of religious dissent in the North and the Midlands. Universities rather than specialized institutions predominate, but the system has a centralized, hierarchic structure, with Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of London at the apex of the hierarchy.

Universities and the social structure . Although the university reforms of the nineteenth century recognized the importance of modern scientific and scholarly subjects and of the intellectuals interested in them, these reforms did not change the place of the universities in the rigidly hierarchic European class system. The universities, therefore, continued to emphasize training for the established professions of law, medicine, and—where this remained within the university—theology. Secondary school teaching was the only “new” profession for which nineteenth-century universities provided training. The introduction of such disciplines as engineering, bacteriology, physiological chemistry, psychiatry, the social sciences, and contemporary philosophy usually met with resistance. This rigidity gave rise to a new wave of intellectual dissatisfaction, which in the mid-nineteenth century found its expression in polemical writings and led to the radicalization of students and intellectuals in general.

There were other sources of discontent among the intelligentsia, some of them inherent in the very process of university education. Universities and other academic institutions had been established in central and eastern Europe to foster autonomous national cultures and to develop the professional manpower needed for the services of the state. Tuition was free or relatively cheap, and students and faculty enjoyed enviable privileges exempting them from harassment by the police and by local authorities and from the oppressive religious and social control characteristic of villages and provincial cities. Becoming a student, therefore, was an attractive path to quasi social mobility. Even if they lived in poverty, students enjoyed some of the privileges of upper-middle-class status, as well as the pleasures of living in large cities with numerous cultural facilities.

For these reasons young people were attracted to the universities, regardless of their interests and abilities or of the demand for the services of graduates. Many of these students were practically unemployable because the European universities trained them in a very limited range of disciplines. Moreover, they were, in a sense, spoiled: not only were they unwilling to forgo their privileges as students for risky careers but also, having experienced life in the capital cities during their studies, they were reluctant to return to the backward provinces. The provinces, which were most in need of educated manpower, were thus drained of their ablest young men, while university graduates emerged as a revolutionary intelligentsia that formed the vanguard of subversive movements.

To some extent, of course, the size of the student body increased in response to a demand for certain kinds of professional men—secondary school teachers, civil servants (who were required to have law degrees), and doctors. But these spurts of growth were invariably followed by waves of unemployment. Such a recession occurred in Germany, mainly as a result of the satiation of the demand for doctors, and as a result the student-population ratio dropped from 6.5/10,000 in the 1890s to 5/10,000 in the next decade (calculated from statistics in Samuel & Thomas 1949, p. 112). Following World War i there was a steep rise in the demand for law graduates to man the newly established civil services in those countries that had gained their independence or had been granted new territories—the Baltic countries, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rumania, and Yugoslavia; but with the inevitable slowdown of the rate of new employment of civil servants, a slump followed. In the countries that had lost territory, especially Austria and Hungary, there was an excess supply of professionals after the war.

The disproportion between the supply of university graduates and the demand for their services became acute in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, a problem that was aggravated but not basically caused by the economic depression. The student-population ratios, which ranged in 1913 from 7/10,000 to 11/10,000, rose by 1934 to a range of 11/10,000 to 30/10,000 (Ben-David 1963-1964, p. 263). Curriculums, however, had changed very little, and approximately half of the students studied law and medicine (ibid., pp. 266-267). To cope with the unemployment of intellectuals and their consequent alienation, university expansion was drastically curtailed by governmental action or by the workings of the free manpower market.

The only academic systems that escaped serious crises during this period were those in the United States and the Soviet Union. The relatively open class structure of the former and the government-enforced egalitarianism in the latter led to important changes in the curriculums in their academic institutions. In the United States, expansion took place especially in such new fields as education, the social sciences, business, social work, engineering, and technological studies; in the Soviet Union, the fields of education and technology were greatly expanded.

These academic systems, therefore, adjusted with little friction to the manpower needs of the changing economies in the two countries and expanded without hindrance. In the United States the student-population ratio grew to 83/10,000 in 1934 and to 185/10,000 in 1958; the comparable ratios for the Soviet Union were 31/10,000 in 1934 and 105/10,000 in 1958 (ibid., p. 263). In neither of these countries was the alienated intelligentsia an important social category in the 1920s and 1930s; instead, the professional expert became increasingly important.

Academic systems since World War II

Because of their success in research and the creation of professional expertise, as well as their political and economic importance, the United States and—to a somewhat more limited extent—the Soviet Union have furnished the main academic models for other areas of the world. They account for about half of the world’s student population, and their contribution to research is overwhelming. Their influence is limited only by the political cleavage in the world and by the prevalence of English and French traditions in the previously colonial countries of Africa and of Spanish-Portuguese traditions in Latin America.

Since World War n higher education has greatly expanded in Asia. In Japan, which has one of the highest student-population ratios in the world, expansion has led to the founding of many new universities of different types and the adoption of a pattern of studies modeled on the diversified American curriculum. The influence of the American pattern has also been considerable in India. Despite the increase in the number of universities in Asia, there is still not nearly enough room for the admission of all applicants, nor has it been possible to prepare the growing number of students adequately for professional service or to prevent their studying fields for which there is little demand. The problem of useless training is most severe in India and Indonesia, where, following European and local traditions, higher education is still regarded as a means of access to the privileged classes rather than as training for productive work. Although similar traditions existed in prerevolutionary China, they have been counteracted by the adoption of the Soviet system, in which students are assigned fields of study according to manpower plans. However, prerevolutionary conditions of secondary education still limit the number of candidates for higher education; despite China’s rapid rate of growth—enrollment in institutions of higher education increased from 116,500 in 1949/1950 to 434,000 in 1957/1958—the number of students relative to the population is still very low (Orleans 1961, pp. 68-69) as compared with India, which had 833,450 students in 1957, and Japan, which had 636,200 students in 1958 (Ben-David 1963-1964, p. 262).

Although the rate of growth in Africa has been high—an increase from 70,000 students in 1950 to 141,000 in 1959—most of this growth has occurred in the United Arab Republic, which alone has more than 100,000 students. South Africa also has a large concentration of students (37,000 in 1958), most of whom are white (United Nations … 1963, vol. 1, pp. 113, 119-124). This rapid growth has created problems of intellectual underemployment similar to those in Asia.

The development of higher education in west, central, and east Africa is only beginning, and the universities in these regions face the immediate problem of finding a sufficient number of qualified students and staff; the latter are to a large extent foreigners.

Development in South America has been relatively slow, the number of students increasing from 179,000 to 326,000 during the period 1950-1959 (ibid., p. 113). Even this modest increase has, however, created serious problems. The universities have coped with the growing numbers of students by limiting enrollment and by introducing difficult examinations at the end of the first year. These measures make the university attractive to potentially mobile young people faced with relatively rigid class structures, but do not provide these youths with efficient means for actual mobility. The result is the emergence of a student body that is frustrated in its aspirations and prone to revolutionary action.

The rate of growth of the student population in Europe has been somewhat accelerated since World War Ii. Student-population ratios have almost doubled since the 1930s and in 1958 ranged from 30/10,000 to 50/10,000 in most European countries. Only in Britain and Norway were the ratios as low as 20/10,000; since 1958 there has been a steep rise in the student-population ratio in Britain (Ben-David 1963-1964, p. 263). The problem of the underemployment of intellectuals has disappeared, and in the natural sciences, technology, and the social sciences there is often a shortage of trained people.

In eastern Europe there has been a reform of the system of higher education based on the Soviet pattern. Most of the expansion has taken place by the establishment of new specialized institutions of technology and education; the universities have grown very little. In western Europe the university has remained the most prevalent form of higher educational institution, but without any basic reform in organization or structure. A number of new universities have been founded, and all the existing ones have been considerably expanded—average enrollment per university in western Europe grew from about 3,590 in 1950 to 4,350 in 1959 (United Nations … 1963, vol. 1, p. 132). There has been a marked decrease in the proportion of law and medical students (Ben-David 1963-1964, pp. 266-267). Training in technological fields, the social sciences, business, and other professions has been expanded or introduced at a great many universities. But only in England, where colleges of technology have been granted university status and there are plans to raise teacher training to university level, is there a true diversification of higher education.

Joseph Ben-David

[See also Academic freedom; Education; Teaching.]


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Irsay, Stephen d 1933-1935 Histoire des universités; françaises et étrangères des origines à nos jours. 2 vols. Paris: Picard. → Volume 1: Moyen age et renaissance. Volume 2: Du XVI siècle à 1860. A supplement by Reneé Aigrain, Les universités catholiques, was published in 1935.

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UNIVERSITIES. Universities played a vital role in the intellectual life of Europe from 1500 to 1789. They educated the intellectual elite and professional classes of Europe. An enormous number of political and religious leaders obtained university degrees or studied in universities without taking degrees even though the percentage of the population attending universities was extremely low. Universities provided the institutional home in which scholars carried on advanced research and created most of the humanistic, medical, legal, and scientific advances. The period from 1500 to 1650 was an era of unprecedented achievement for universities. They remained important, but to a lesser degree, from 1650 through the end of the eighteenth century.


A university had several linked components. Professors conducted research and taught theology, canon law, civil law, medicine, and the arts subjects of grammar, rhetoric, the classics of ancient Rome and Greece, logic, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, plus other subjects on occasion, such as medical botany and Hebrew. Written statutes told them which texts and disciplines to teach. A limited formal academic structure provided rules for instruction and student conduct. Students came, lived, studied, and obtained degrees. The university awarded degrees certifying that the recipient had a high level of expertise in a discipline with the approval of a supreme legal authority, such as emperor, pope, or the ruler of the state in which the university existed.

Europe had forty-seven universities in 1500, then added another twenty-eight new universities that survived by 1650. Thereafter the number of new university foundations slowed considerably, while some older ones were closed or merged. The net gain between 1651 and 1790 was ten, making a total of about eighty-five European universities in 1790. The lands that are now Germany, Italy, France, and Spain had, in that order, the largest number of universities, while another fifteen were to be found in the rest of Europe. Although any designation of the most important universities is open to disagreement, the list would include Bologna, Padua, Pavia, and Pisa in Italy; Paris in France; Cologne and Heidelberg in Germany; Vienna in Austria; Louvain in Belgium; Leiden in the Netherlands; Oxford and Cambridge in England; St. Andrews in Scotland; Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca in Spain; Coimbra in Portugal; and Cracow in Poland.

Universities were not the same across Europe. Universities in northern Europe and Italy differed greatly in the importance given to different disciplines, the level of instruction, and the age of students. Paris and Oxford, the prototypical northern universities, emphasized instruction in arts and theology. Most northern European universities had a majority of young students fourteen to eighteen or nineteen years of age studying for the bachelor's degree in arts, plus a smaller number of advanced students, often future clergymen seeking master's and doctoral degrees in theology. They had a handful of students studying for doctorates in law and medicine. Most northern European universities, especially those in German-speaking lands, had only one or two professors each for medicine and law.

Italian universities emphasized law and medicine at an advanced level and had many professors for these subjects. For example, the University of Bologna had an average of forty professors of law and twenty to twenty-five professors of medicine in the sixteenth century. They taught arts subjects such as logic and philosophy as well as preparation for medicine and law. But they taught little theology and did not award bachelor's degrees. The greatest number of students obtained doctorates in law, the next largest number doctorates of medicine, followed distantly by students winning doctorates of arts or theology. The master's degree with the right to teach was awarded with the doctoral degree without a separate examination. Students at Italian universities were typically eighteen to twenty-five years of age. Because of the emphasis on law and medicine at the doctoral level, many northern Europeans, especially Germans, obtained bachelor's degrees in the north, then came to Italy to obtain doctoral degrees in these disciplines.

The size of universities varied greatly, partly because the age of students differed. Paris, with an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 students, most of them young, was undoubtedly the largest university. Up to 500 teachers, the vast majority in arts instructing younger students while studying for advanced degrees, taught at Paris. Salamanca also had several thousand mostly younger students. The University of Bologna, the largest Italian university, had about ninety professors and 1,500 to 2,000 students, all studying for doctorates, in the sixteenth century. But the vast majority of universities were smaller: thirty to forty professors taught 300 to 800 students. Some universities had only ten to twenty professors teaching 100 to 300 students. Student enrollment fluctuated from decade to decade as war, disease, and the presence or absence of a famous professor caused students to move from one university to another. Students frequently began at one university and took a degree at a second or third. They could do this easily because the texts studied were the same from university to university, and all lectures, texts, disputations, and examinations were in Latin.

A course met five days a week, typically Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, with the professor lecturing for an hour or longer. In a typical lecture, the professor began by reading a section from a standard authority, such as a scientific work of Aristotle, a medical text of Galen (c. 130c. 200), a legal passage from the Corpus iuris civilis, the collection of ancient Roman law, or the New Testament for theology. The students sitting on benches normally had copies of the text or passages. The professor next delivered a detailed analysis of the text, explaining how it should be interpreted, rejecting some interpretations, reconciling others, bringing to bear other texts, and explaining its larger meaning. He might range far beyond the original text. This was the heart of university instruction. In due time the professor published these detailed analyses of authoritative texts. Other professors used them in their own research and teaching or published contrary interpretations. Students taking notes and annotating the passage in their own copies had useful professional information, such as a full explanation of a legal text and guidance about how it might be used in cases. The lecture concluded with questions and answers between students and professors. They sometimes moved into the piazza or atrium for this less formal part of teaching.

Another important academic exercise was the disputation. A student or professor posted a notice announcing that he would defend a series of positions in his discipline at a certain time and place. Anyone was free to come and argue. Disputations offered practice in learned argument, which was considered a valuable skill in all disciplines and professions. For medical students, the annual public anatomy was also essential. Students stood in tightly packed rows to watch as a dissector cut open a body as a professor explained the organs. Public anatomies were scheduled for the coldest time of the year and went on without stop until the body putrefied days and weeks later.

After three or four years of study, the student presented himself before a committee of examining professors as a candidate for the bachelor's degree. Examinations for the doctoral degree were more complex. After four to seven years of additional study, the candidate presented himself to an examining committee, appointed by a college of doctors of law, medicine, arts, or theology. Colleges of doctors consisted of professors and other local men holding doctoral degrees in a subject. A typical examination required the student to explain several passages (called puncta or points) chosen at random from the required texts in the discipline, followed by wide-ranging questions from the examiners. A candidate for a medical degree might also be required to give his opinion on a medical case proposed to him. Students who satisfied the examiners of their competence were awarded doctoral degrees recognizing them to be experts in a subject and authorized to teach it. The degree was conferred in public ceremonies marked by much rejoicing and considerable expense.


The introduction of humanism was the most important curricular change in the sixteenth century, and it involved much more than teaching the literary and historical classics of ancient Rome and Greece in their original languages. Humanists and professors with humanistic training transformed the study of several disciplines because they used their linguistic and historical skills and critical outlook of humanism in their research and teaching. The use of the Greek text of Aristotle and ancient commentaries in place of medieval commentaries offered new insights in philosophy. The rediscovery of ancient mathematical texts aided mathematicians, including Galileo Galilei (15641642), a professor of mathematics at the University of Pisa (15891592) and the University of Padua (15921610). Applying the techniques of humanistic textual criticism to the Corpus iuris civilis led to a better understanding of the historical context of Roman law. Called humanistic jurisprudence, this new approach had great influence in French and German universities but little in Italian universities.

Humanism had the greatest impact in medicine through a series of developments sometimes called "medical humanism." Professors of medicine used humanistic skills to examine the medical texts of Galen and other ancients in the original Greek. They found the medieval Latin translations of Galen wanting, so they produced better Latin translations for classroom use. Their enhanced understanding of the texts soon led them to find fault with Galen himself. The medical humanists also placed greater emphasis on anatomical study achieved through more frequent and more knowledgeable dissections of human bodies. Italian universities added professorships of medical botany in order to improve the study of the medicinal properties of plants. The universities of Padua and Pisa simultaneously founded the first university botanical gardens in 1543. Henceforward, students came to the garden in springtime to examine plants and learn about their medicinal properties. Clinical medicine began in the 1540s when a Paduan professor took students to hospitals in order to lecture on a disease at the bedside of the ill patient. Even though universities remained dedicated to lecturing on authoritative texts, these innovations gave greater emphasis to hands-on study, a tendency that continued in the following centuries. Universities in Italy, especially Padua, pioneered the changes in teaching and research, while universities elsewhere quickly followed.

In many northern European universities, especially in Germany, the introduction of humanists and humanistic studies into universities at the beginning of the sixteenth century produced bitter conflict with theologians. The fundamental issue was, how should the sacred texts of Christianity be studied and interpreted? The theologians answered by traditional medieval Scholastic methods, using the tools of logic, the philosophical framework of Aristotle, and guidance from Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and other great medieval theologians. Only in this way could God's truth be uncovered and error avoided. The humanists answered, not through Scholasticism and medieval commentaries, but through careful linguistic, grammatical, and rhetorical analysis of the texts in their original language, Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. This enabled man to understand God's personal message and to be persuaded to follow him. The two sides fought bitterly. The humanists heaped scorn on university theologians for confusing the word of God with man's interpretations, while the Scholastic theologians dismissed the humanists as grammarians lacking the theological training to understand what they read. The differences were great, because the stakes were university positions in this life and salvation in the next. The advent of the Protestant Reformation exacerbated the conflict as many, but not all, younger German humanists joined Luther while older humanists and most Scholastic theologians remained Catholic. In Italian universities, by contrast, humanists and the few theologians who taught in universities there mostly ignored each other.

The sixteenth was a century of enormous achievement for universities. It is difficult to name another century in which university professors produced so much important scholarship. Numerous major religious leaders also held university professorships. Martin Luther (14831546), professor of theology at the modest, newly founded (1502), and geographically isolated University of Wittenberg, began a religious revolution. His chief lieutenant, Philipp Melanchthon (14971560), was a professor of Greek at Wittenberg. And many of their Catholic opponents were professors. Leaders with university training from other areas of life were equally important.

The eruption of the Protestant Reformation had both negative and positive impact on universities. Enrollment initially dropped sharply in German universities, especially those in lands that became Lutheran. But enrollment recovered by the end of the sixteenth century, and a few new universities, both Catholic and Protestant, were established. Despite their differences, students continued to move from university to university across religious boundaries. For example, German Protestant students continued to study and to get degrees in law from the Italian universities in Bologna, Padua, Pavia, and Perugia because the most famous professors of law taught there and because Italian civil governments protected them from prosecution for their religious beliefs.

DECLINE: 1650 TO 1790

Universities continued to lead Europe in research and training leaders into the seventeenth century. But then new and different institutions of higher education rose to challenge them.

Protestants needed schools to train their clergymen in the new doctrines. Catholic universities obviously would not do this, and establishing new Protestant universities was difficult and expensive. Hence, small schools for theology and arts sprang up in the Protestant world. The Calvinist Genevan Academy (founded in 1559) was a famous example. It had seven or eight teachers for theology, Greek, Hebrew, arts, and law. The majority of the graduates became ministers. Some of these new schools sought to become universities teaching a broad range of subjects, but few succeeded.

In the Catholic world the new religious orders of the Catholic Reformation, led by the Jesuits, did the same on a much larger scale. The Society of Jesus, founded in 1540, originally established schools to train boys aged ten to sixteen in the humanities. A handful of Jesuit schools began to add upper-level classes in philosophy and theology in order to train members of the society. These schools, which were open to lay students, proved to be very popular because the Jesuits were excellent scholars and teachers and because the schools were free. Thus, a growing number of Jesuit schools with classes in logic, metaphysics, natural philosophy, mathematics, and theology appeared. Occasionally a Jesuit school also offered an introductory law course. Other religious orders of the Catholic Reformation followed the lead of the Jesuits.

Prodded by princes, the Jesuits also established boarding schools for noble boys and youths from about the ages of ten to twenty. These schools added classes in French, dancing, and horsemanship, all necessary skills for sons of the ruling classes, to the humanities, philosophy, and religion classes. Schools for nobles offering the opportunity to mix with peers attracted students who would otherwise have attended universities. They were expensive, but so were universities. Other Catholic Reformation religious orders again imitated the Jesuits.

Religious order schools offered a structured education in a morally upright and safe environment. By contrast, universities had loosely organized curricula, a licentious life style, and brawling students. Most university students carried swords, and many carried firearms. It is small wonder that many parents preferred religious schools, especially the boarding schools, for their sons. For example, the school for nobles at Parma, founded in 1601, rose from 550 students in 1605 to 905 in 1660, and a minority of the students were non-Italian. Approximately one-third of the students attended the higher classes, which duplicated the first year or two of university studies. Every young male from the ages of eighteen to twenty who attended a religious order school was a possible enrollment loss for universities. Protestant lands also established numerous highly regarded and socially selective schools that taught part of the arts curriculum of universities.

Learned societies offered intellectual and financial competition to universities needing scholars. A famous example was the Royal Society of London for the Advancement of Natural Knowledge, founded in 1662. Financially underwritten by member subscriptions, it supported scientific research, provided opportunities for contacts with other scholars, and published the results of research. Learned societies proliferated. Most Continental societies received funding from governments; some offered salaries to members who carried on studies in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and other subjects. And they did not have to teach. Overall, scientific societies offered attractive nonuniversity alternatives to scholars needing support. Scientific societies created an international network enabling scholars in a discipline to communicate their research.

The philosophes of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment attacked universities as not useful to society. They judged the traditional university curriculum to be incapable of training citizens to contribute knowledge to improve the state. So they persuaded rulers to create new, specialized institutions of higher learning to teach practical subjects, such as agricultural technology, engineering, military tactics, surgery, even the fine arts. These highly specialized and practically oriented schools competed with universities for students.

Some of the criticism of the philosophes was justified, but much was not. Universities had kept up with innovations in learning. Although Latin remained the common language of instruction and writing, and universities continued to teach traditional subjects, they had added professorships in new subjects such as history and geography. They had discarded Aristotelian science in favor of Galileo's mathematical physics and had then adopted experimental science, all in the course of a century. And university research in medicine continued to lead the way, as university professors produced all of the important medical advances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Professors in traditional subjects produced nontraditional works of scholarship. For example, Adam Smith (17231790), who taught logic and moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1751 to 1764, produced An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776. Universities continued to award degrees certifying that the lawyer, judge, physician, clergyman, teacher, and civil servant were qualified to practice their professions. Learned societies, religious schools, and specialized schools could not do this. Overall, universities played essential intellectual and social leadership roles in European life that no other institution could replace.

See also Academies, Learned ; Classicism ; Clergy ; Education ; Enlightenment ; Humanists and Humanism ; Latin ; Law ; Literacy and Reading ; Medicine ; Printing and Publishing ; Reformation, Protestant .


Brockliss, L. W. B. French Higher Education in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Cultural History. Oxford, 1987. Comprehensive study.

Curtis, Mark H. Oxford and Cambridge in Transition 1558 1642: An Essay on Changing Relations between the English Universities and English Society. Oxford, 1959.

De Ridder-Symoens, Hilde, ed. A History of the University in Europe. Vol. 2, Universities in Early Modern Europe (15001800). Cambridge, U.K., 1996. Information on all aspects of universities with emphasis on general patterns and the university in society. Good on northern universities.

Farge, James K. Orthodoxy and Reform in Early Reformation France: The Faculty of Theology of Paris, 15001543. Leiden, 1985. A detailed study of the personnel and activities of the major Catholic theological faculty.

Grendler, Paul F. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore and London, 2002. Comprehensive study of Italy's sixteen universities, 14001625, with extensive bibliography.

History of Universities. Avebury and Oxford, 1981. Annual volume founded by the late Charles B. Schmitt. Includes articles, bibliographical surveys of recent research, and reviews.

Jurriaanse, M. W. The Founding of Leyden University. Leiden, 1965.

Maag, Karin. Seminary or University? The Genevan Academy and Reformed Higher Education, 15601620. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1995. Important for Calvinist influence plus the universities of Heidelberg and Leiden.

McConica, James K., ed. The History of the University of Oxford. Vol. 3, The Collegiate University. Oxford, 1986. Excellent study of all aspects of Oxford between 1485 and 1603.

Rummel, Erika. The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1995. Study of the battles between humanists and Scholastics, mostly in Germany.

Schmitt, Charles B. Aristotle and the Renaissance. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1983. Short survey describing how Renaissance university scholars approached Aristotle in innovative ways.

Tyacke, Nicholas, ed. The History of the University of Oxford. Vol. 4, Seventeenth-Century Oxford. Oxford, 1997.

Wear, A., R. K. French, and I. M. Lonie, eds. The Medical Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1985. Excellent collection of studies on medical humanism, anatomy, and other aspects of the medical Renaissance.

Paul F. Grendler

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In 1725 Peter the Great founded the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, which, unlike its Western models, included a school of higher education known as the Academic University. The primary task of the university was to prepare selected young men to enter the challenging field of scientific scholarship. The university encountered difficulties in attracting and retaining students. Because all instructors members of the Academywere foreigners, there

was also a serious language barrier. The general atmosphere did not favor the new teaching venture, and the university folded before the end of the century.

After a slow start, Moscow University, founded in 1755, ended the century as a dynamic enterprise with a promising future. The initial charter of the university guaranteed a high degree of academic autonomy but limited the enrollment to free estates, which excluded a vast majority of the population. In 1855, on the occasion of the centenary celebration of its existence, the university published an impressive volume on its scholarly achievements.

The beginning of the nineteenth century manifested a vibrant national interest in both utilitarian and humanistic sides of science. During the first decade of the century, the country acquired four new universities. Dorpat University, actually a reestablished Protestant institution, immediately began to serve as a link to Western universities and as an effective center for training future Russian professors. The universities at Kharkov, Kazan, and St. Petersburg benefited from an initial appointment of Western professors displaced by the Napoleonic wars. St. Petersburg University also benefited from the presence of the Academy of Sciences in the same city.

It was not unusual for the members of the Academy of Sciences to offer courses at the university. Kiev University was founded in 1833 with the aim of contributing to the creation of a new Polish nationality favorably disposed toward the spirit of Russia, a quixotic government plan that collapsed in a hurry allowing the university to follow the normal course of development.

The 1803 university charter adopted the Western idea of institutional independence and opened up higher education to all estates. Conservative administrators, however, continued to favor the upper levels of society. The liberalism and humanism of government management of higher education was a passing phenomenon. In the 1820s, the Ministry of Public Education, dominated by extreme conservatism, encouraged animosity toward foreign professors and undertook extensive measures to eliminate the influence of Western materialism on Russian science. Geology was eliminated from the university curriculum because it contradicted scriptural positions.

In a slightly modified form, extreme conservatism continued to dominate the policies of the Ministry of Public Education during the reign of Nicholas I (18251855). The 1833 university charter vested more authority in superintendents of school districtssubordinated directly to the Minister of Public Educationthan in university rectors and academic councils. Professors' writings were subjected to a multilayered censorship system.

Russia's defeat in the Crimean War in 18551856 stimulated rising demands for structural changes in the nation's sociopolitical system; in fact, the Epoch of Great Reformsas the 1860s were knownwas remembered for the emergence of an ideology that extolled science as a most sublime and creative expression of critical thought, the most promising base for democratic reforms. As Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, the famed neurophysiologist, noted, the Nihilist praise for the spirit of science as an epitome of critical thought sent young men in droves to university natural-science departments.

Inspired by the waves of liberal thought and sentiment, the government treated the universities as major national assets. Budgetary allocations for the improvement of research facilities reached new heights, as did the official determination to send Russian students to Western universities for advanced studies. New universities were founded in Odessa and Warsaw. In 1863 the government enacted a new university charter with a solid emphasis on academic autonomy.

At the same time, the government abrogated the more crippling provisions of the censorship law inherited from the era of Nicholas I. This reform, however, had a short history: In response to the Nihilists' and related groups' growing criticism of the autocratic system, the government quickly restored a long list of previous restrictions. This development, in turn, intensified student unrest, making it a historical force of major proportions. The decades preceding the World War I were filled with student strikes and rebellions.

The 1884 university charter was the government's answer to continuing student unrest: It prohibited students from holding meetings on university premises, abolished all student organizations, and subjected student life to thorough regimentation. The professors not only lost their right to elect university administrators but were ordered to organize their lectures in accordance with mandatory specifications issued by the Ministry of Public Education.

Student unrest kept the professors out of classrooms but did not keep them out of the libraries and laboratories. The waning decades of the tsarist reign were marked by an abundance of university contributions to science. Particularly noted was the pioneering work in aerodynamics, virology, chromatography, neurophysiology, soil microbiology, probability theory in mathematics, mutation theory in biology, and non-Aristotelian logic.

World War I brought so much tranquility to universities that the Ministry of Public Education announced the beginning of work on a new charter promising a removal of the more drastic limitations on academic autonomy. The fall of the tsarist system in early 1917 brought a quick end to this particular project. During the preceding twenty years new universities were founded in Saratov and Tomsk.

The last decades of Imperial Russia showed a marked growth of institutions of higher education outside the framework of state universities. To bolster the industrialization of the national economy, the government both improved the existing technical schools and established new ones at a university level. The St. Petersburg Polytechnical Institute was a major addition to higher education. There was also a successful effort to establish Higher Courses for Women financed by private endowments and treated as equal to universities. Shaniavsky University in Moscow, established by a private endowment, presented a major venture in higher education. In the admission of students, it was less restrictive than the state universities and was the first institution to offer such new courses as sociology.

In 1899 the total enrollment of students in state universities was 16,497. Forty percent of regular students sought law degrees, 28 percent chose medicine, 27 percent were in the natural sciences, and only 4 percent chose the social sciences and the humanities. Law was favored because it provided the best opportunity for government employment.

The February Revolution in 1917 placed the Russian nation on a track leading to a political life guided by democratic ideals. The writer Maxim Gorky greeted the beginning of a new era in national history in an article published in the popular journal Priroda (Nature ) underscoring the interdependence of democracy and science. The new political regime wasted no time in abolishing censorship in all its multiple manifestations and granted professors the long-sought right to establish a national association for the protection of both science and the scientific community. A government decision confirmed the establishment of a university in Perm.

Immediately after the October Revolution in 1917, the Bolshevik authorities enacted a censorship law that in some respects was more comprehensive and penetrating than its tsarist predecessors. The new government began to expand the national network of institutions of higher education; in 1981, the country had 835 such institutions, including eighty-three universities. The primary task of universities was to train professional personnel; scholarly research was relegated to a secondary position. This policy, however, did not prevent the country's leading universities with research traditions from active scholarship in selected branches of science. The universities also concentrated on Marxist indoctrination. The curriculum normally included such Marxist sciences as historical materialism, dialectical materialism, dialectical logic, and Marxist ethics. To be admitted to postgraduate studies, candidates were expected to pass an examination in Marxist theory with the highest grade. Marxist theory was officially granted a status of science, and Marxist philosophers were considered members of the scientific community.

In their organization and administration, Soviet universities followed the rules set up by institutional charters, specific adaptations to a government promulgated model. Faculty councils elected high administrators, but, according to an unwritten law, the candidates for these positions needed approval by political authorities. Local Communist organizations conducted continuous ideological campaigns and tracked the political behavior of professors. In the post-Stalin era political control and ideological interference lost much of their intensity and effectiveness.

During the last two decades of the Soviet system the government encouraged a planned expansion of scientific research in all universities. Selected universities became pivotal components of the newly founded scientific centers, aggregates of provincial research bodies involved primarily in the study of acute problems of regional economic significance. Metropolitan universities expanded and intensified the work of traditional and newly established research institutes. Leading universities were involved in publishing activity, some on a large scale. In university publications there was more emphasis or theoretical than on experimental studies. Mathematical research, in no need of laboratory equipment, continued to blossom in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev universities.

See also: academy of sciences; education


Kassow, Samuel D. (1961). Students, Professors, and the State in Tsarist Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Vucinich, Alexander. (19631970). Science in Russian Culture. 2 vols. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Alexander Vucinich

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universities. In the Middle Ages, the studium generale, a place of learning open to all, was the equivalent of the term ‘university’. Instruction was by learned men and degrees were awarded as a title of honour. From the 12th cent., Paris was the intellectual centre of this activity, where luminaries such as Peter Abelard (1079–1142) were both students and teachers.

Similar institutions were established in England, at Oxford about 1185 and at Cambridge in 1209. For the following six centuries, the two universities, which mainly provided a liberal education for the aristocracy and gentry, retained their exclusiveness. The attempts to establish a university at Durham during the Commonwealth foundered at the Restoration in 1660. Restrictions on non-Anglicans led to the founding of University College, London, in 1828 and the University of London eight years later, with its affiliated colleges and degree-granting powers. Scotland had a long tradition of university education which was available for dissenters. St Andrews (1410), Glasgow (1451), Aberdeen (1494), and Edinburgh (1583) attracted many English students.

Until the early 19th cent. there were no universities in the north of England. However, in 1832, the clergy of Durham cathedral decided to support a university based in the Norman castle, though restricted to students who subscribed to the Thirty-Nine Articles. The university, which received its charter in 1837, was based on the Oxford and Cambridge model. Most of its (male) graduates entered the church.

A new impetus for change and expansion in higher education came largely from the growth of science and its applications to an industrial society. One example of this was the setting up of a Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science in 1872, chaired by the 7th duke of Devonshire. One of its main findings, published in 1875, was the need for more and better-trained science teachers, in which universities could help. Owens' College, Manchester, opened in 1851, had been a forerunner, though many of its students were part-time and did not aim at a degree.

Civic pride was also one of the prime motives for creating universities, which received benefactions from Jesse Boot at Nottingham, Mark Firth at Sheffield, and Josiah Mason at Birmingham, which also later attracted money from the American steel millionaire Andrew Carnegie. University colleges were set up at Southampton (1862), Newcastle (1871), Leeds (1874), Bristol (1876), Sheffield (1879), Birmingham (1880), Nottingham (1881), Liverpool (1881), Reading (1892), and Exeter (1895).

In the 1880s, one development was the northern federation of provincial colleges. Owens' College, Manchester, was joined by Liverpool in 1884 to form the federal University of Victoria, and by Leeds in 1887. Until then the students of these colleges had been prepared for external London degrees: under the new charter, the university awarded its own. The federation lasted until 1903, when individual charters were granted.

The University of Wales followed a similar pattern of an upsurge in civic awareness. Colleges were founded at Aberystwyth (1872), Cardiff (1883), and Bangor (1884). It was not until 1893 that a charter was granted to the University of Wales, giving the body degree-awarding rights in place of the London external degree. University College, Swansea, joined the federation in 1923.

The lack of opportunities for the higher education of women led to the founding of the university extension movement. Extramural classes had been held for women by professors at King's College, London, as early as 1847. In 1867 Josephine Butler and Anne Clough became president and secretary respectively of the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women. The success of the courses, which were very well attended, led Cambridge to establish university extension in 1873, sending lecturers to Nottingham, Derby, and Leicester. This was swiftly followed by the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching in 1876 and at Oxford in 1878. The newer civic universities were also soon heavily involved in the work, later developing departments of extramural studies. Women's colleges were instituted at Cambridge—Girton (1869) and Newnham (1871), with Anne Clough as principal—and at Oxford—Lady Margaret Hall (1879) and Somerville (1879), followed by others.

Whilst the University of London had grown into a teaching institution with 24 schools by 1900, subsequent university expansion was slight; in the inter-war period, only two new colleges outside London were founded, at Hull and at Leicester. Government funding was supplied to the universities and from 1919 was administered by the University Grants Committee (UGC).

After the Second World War, there was a great demand for more university places as the birth rate rose. The University College of North Staffordshire, now Keele University, was founded in 1949, and in the years 1961–5, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick, and York. Newcastle, previously linked with Durham, became a university in its own right. The Robbins Committee on Higher Education (1963) recommended that nine colleges of advanced technology (CAT) should become full universities, including Aston, Bath, Bradford, Loughborough, and Salford. At the same time Strathclyde, Dundee, and Heriot-Watt were founded in Scotland. Northern Ireland has Queen's, Belfast, a 19th-cent. foundation, and the University of Ulster at Coleraine.

Innovations in the structure of university organizations and curricula are a recent feature of the system. The Open University (1966) provides degree and other courses for students over 21, operates an open admissions policy, and uses distance learning. The University of Buckingham (1976) is the only independent university in the United Kingdom, offering two-year honours degree courses. A more informal organization is the University of the Third Age (U3A), which provides educational opportunities for the over-50s.

Following the recommendations of the White Paper ‘Higher Education: A New Framework’ (1991), the 1992 Education Act abolished the distinction between polytechnics and universities. There are now almost 100 universities whose finances are determined by the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC), which replaced the UGC.

Peter Gordon


Cobban, A. B. , The Medieval Universities: Their Development and Organisation (1975);
Jones, D. R. , The Origins of Civil Universities (1988);
Sanderson, M. (ed.), The Universities in the Nineteenth Century (1975).

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Universities (Occult)

Universities (Occult)

In many works on the occult sciences, allusions are made to schools and universities and the instruction of those who were drawn to them. The idea for such schools derived from the philosophical schools and academies of the ancient Greek teachers. In the early Christian era, Gnosticism was taught in such schools. Since that discipline was centered upon gnosis or knowledge, a school (rather than a temple or church) was the natural form that its group life assumed.

While a few similar schools might have existed in the Dark Ages, the idea of such institutions was largely a myth used to credential otherwise informally and self-taught occultists or to refer to the places where alchemists and occultists quietly gathered to consult with each other. It was the practice of those on the faculties of the universities and those who operated independently to draw students around them, and professors of the occult sciences were no different.

There is no doubt that during the Middle Ages many lecturers taught alchemy and kindred subjects at great universities. Thus Paracelsus lectured on alchemy at the University of Basel, and he was preceded and followed there and elsewhere by others who taught that and other occult arts.

Louis Figuier, in his book L'alchimie et les alchimistes (1854), alluded to a school in Paris frequented by alchemists that he himself attended in the middle of the nineteenth century. The schoolan ordinary chemical laboratory during the day became in the evening a center of the most elaborate alchemical study, where Figuier met alchemical students, visionary and practical.

The novelist Balzac alludes to an occult school in the story "The Secret of Ruggier," which he placed at the time of Catherine de Medici. He stated: "At this epoch the occult sciences were cultivated with an ardour which put to shame the incredulous spirit of our century. The universal protection accorded to these sciences by the ruling sovereigns of the times was quite remarkable."

He goes on to say that at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Ruggier was a member of a secret university for the study of the occult sciences, where astrologers, alchemists, and others studied several branches of hidden knowledge. Balzac gives no details as to its locality, or as to the exact nature of its curriculum.

The College of Augurs in Rome and the Calmecac of ancient Mexico are distinct examples of institutions for the study of divination, and in this connection, the House of Wisdom of the Ismaelite sect at Cairo, Egypt, may be mentioned.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky insisted that a great "school" of illuminated occult adepts flourished in Tibet, but nobody except herself and her immediate friends ever saw them or had any dealings with them. Prior to 1959, Tibet was the home of a large number of monasteries that were also the schools of Tibetan Buddhism and its esoteric practices.

Instructional centers for people who studied the occultism integral to Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Asian systems did exist (and continue to exist) across Asia. These centers, remote and mysterious prior to the transportation and communications revolution of the twentieth century, took on a mythical character in the occult literature of the nineteenth century. Those associated with these Asian schools were rumored to have extraordinary occult prowess.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries attempts have been made to recreate these ancient occult schools. For example, the School for the Discovery of the Lost Secrets of Antiquity flourished for a generation in San Diego, California. It was founded by Katherine Tingley late in the nineteenth century and taught Theosophy. A decade earlier, Blavatsky founded the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, an organization carried on by Theosophists associated with the Theosophical Society.

One modern equivalent of ancient occult universities are the secret magical orders, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where occult and mystical subjects are taught to students, with grades of advancement. Many such orders, based in part on a format adopted from Freemasonry, exist.

One outstanding attempt to recreate the ancient Gnostic schools, with an intense course in esoteric training, is Ramtha's School of Enlightenment in Yelm, Washington, opened in 1988 by JZ Knight. Ramtha, a channeled entity, instructs students through the entranced Knight.

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The improved literacy and communications of the Renaissance era went hand-inhand with an increasing respect for intellectual training for professions such as medicine, theology, and the law. To create well-rounded and educated citizens, major universities were established throughout western Europe: at Ferrara, Turin, and Parma in Italy; Bordeaux and Nantes in France; Copenhagen and Uppsala in Scandinavia; Frankfurt and Tubingen in Germany; Saragossa and Valencia in Spain; and at Kraków, Poland. The University of Paris, which taught the liberal arts and theology, remained the model for institutions throughout northern Europe, awarding bachelor's degrees and training students of the upper classesall malein a fundamental classical learning of grammar, rhetoric, and ethics.

For cities and their lords, the university was a mark of prestige. It represented advanced thinking, enlightened rule, the new trend of humanistic learning and scholarship, and the generous patronage of town fathers and aristocrats. Universities competed for renowned professors, who in turn attracted the best scholars. Members of the expanding middle class, at the same time, sought out higher education for their sons, who trained themselves in the law, medicine, and for careers as administrators and diplomats. The University of Bologna in northern Italy became a center for the study of the revived Roman law,

Within the university, students attended lectures by professors, who spoke and debated in Latin. The courses relied on the teachings of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates, and the Arab scientist Avicenna. Following the humanistic philosophy, students critically examined classical texts, studying the original language, whether Greek or Latin, in order to get at the intended meaning. This was an important break with medieval higher education, in which professors simply handed down the accepted traditional interpretation of the ancient texts and students were discouraged from critical thinking.

After a course of study, the student was put through a degree examination by professors and scholars, who tested his mastery of the subject and his ability to defend his ideas in open debate. The bachelor's degree enabled further study, while the master's was a license to teach. The doctorate was awarded for scholars devoted to the study of a particular field and the contribution of original knowledge to that field. Most universities during the Renaissance had several hundred students, while the largest at Bologna and Paris had a few thousand. Students within the universities organized themselves according to their homelands. At the largest universities these student unions held considerable power, making demands for better working and living conditions and in some places passing on the hiring of new professors by the university.

See Also: Aristotelianism; humanism

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universities: see colleges and universities.

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