King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
In the Beginning ...

Historical background

Street view of the Strand London busy with horse coaches and pedestrians showing a church on left and large classical facade of Somerset House on rightSt Mary le Strand and Somerset House (1836) The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought calls for the reform of higher education and the establishment of provincial universities to provide adequate commercial and technical tuition to the sons of the growing middle classes.

It was argued that social and economic change - a rapidly rising urban population, industrialisation and a growing overseas empire - required the widening of access and broadening of the course of education beyond the usual study of theology and the classics to embrace the liberal arts and new science.

To an extent, the Scottish universities, with their tradition of philosophical and scientific enquiry in the Enlightenment mode, set an example for reformers south of the border.

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were slow to initiate reforms of their archaic syllabuses and provide instruction for religious minorities - Jews, Roman Catholics and Dissenters - hitherto largely excluded from higher education by the Test Act.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars furthermore injected renewed vigour into the reform movement, in which intellectual curiosity and a nascent religious revival were combined in the pursuit of a wider dissemination of knowledge for the purposes of moral, social and economic improvement and individual and collective progress in the national self-interest.

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