Colleges and Universities


Colleges and Universities, degree-granting institutions of higher education. In the original sense of the word, a college was a group of students who gathered to share academic and residential facilities. Each college was a component part of a corporate body called a university, the word being an abbreviation of the Latin Universitas magisterium et scholarium (“guild [or union] of masters and students”), organized for mutual advantage and legal protection. Today, a college may be affiliated with a university or independent.

In some universities, particularly European institutions, students begin their higher education with specialized studies because their general education is completed in secondary school. In general, European universities have no prescribed courses, attendance requirements, or course grades. Students may attend lectures, but do their work directly with tutors who prepare them for examinations. Programmes may be completed in two to six years, usually split into three terms. In the United States, students are traditionally required to take general survey courses before they specialize in major areas of concentration; the undergraduate programme generally lasts four years, with each year split into two or three semesters.

Typical first degrees include the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and Bachelor of Science (B.Sc. or B.S.) degree, while those who want additional education may enrol in programmes leading to a Master of Arts (M.A., occasionally a first degree, as in some Scottish universities) or a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree.


Although modern colleges and universities evolved from Western European institutions of the Middle Ages, significant types of higher learning existed in ancient times, in the Middle and the Far East as well as in Europe. Some of these Eastern institutions still flourish.

A Historical Antecedents

In Greece, the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle were advanced schools of philosophy. During the Hellenistic period, which began in the 4th-century bc, Athens attracted many Roman students, including, later, the statesmen and writers Julius Caesar, Cicero, Augustus, and Horace. Also important during this period was the Egyptian city of Alexandria, with its great library (see Alexandria, Library of) and museum, which attracted scholars from the Middle East. The Jewish academies in Palestine and Babylonia, which produced the Talmud, promoted religious and secular intellectual pursuits from about ad 70 through to the 13th century. The University of Nalanda, in northern India, where native and Chinese students studied Buddhism, functioned until the 12th century. Institutions of higher education flourished in China itself from the 7th century onwards, and in Korea from the 14th century. Al-Azhar University in Cairo, now more than 1,000 years old, is the central authority for Islam. Another Islamic institution of equal antiquity is Al Qarawiyin University in Fès, Morocco.

B Medieval Universities

Western European universities developed as students migrated to various places where noted teachers lectured on subjects of particular interest to them. The language was no barrier because lectures and disputation were conducted in the universal tongue, Latin. By the 12th century, Paris was established as the centre for theology and philosophy, and the University of Paris became the model for later universities in northern Europe. Bologna, Italy, was the centre for the study of law, and the University of Bologna set the pattern for Italian and Spanish universities. From the 13th century onwards, universities were established in France, England, Scotland, Germany, Bohemia, and Poland. Students migrating from the same country banded together into so-called nations for mutual aid and protection. From these communities developed the concept of the college (Latin, collegium,”society”). Medieval universities had the right to suspend studies when conditions in their towns and cities were unfavourable and to confer degrees that included the privilege of teaching in any Christian country.

C From the Renaissance to the 18th Century

Italian universities such as Ferrara helped to transmit Renaissance humanistic ideas to northern European institutions. Bologna was the great 17th-century centre for medicine and biology. Leiden University in Holland, established in 1575, attracted students from all over the Continent to investigate the new sciences; in the 18th century it became an important centre for legal studies, attracting many students from Scotland. The University of Salamanca, in Spain, founded about 1230, set the pattern for the establishment of institutions in Central and South America in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The University of Wittenberg was the scene of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (1517), started by Martin Luther, a professor there. His disciples went on to teach in all parts of Germany, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe. The Calvinist Reformation in Switzerland involved the University of Geneva, whose faculty and students helped to spread the doctrines of the theologian John Calvin throughout Europe and North America.

In the United States, in New England, Calvinists founded Harvard College (later Harvard University), the oldest American university. The Calvinist tradition also led to the establishment of Yale College (later Yale University) and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Other colonial establishments included King’s College (Columbia University), Queen’s College (now Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey), and Dartmouth College. During the colonial period, however, many well-to-do American students chose to study abroad, primarily at universities in Scotland, Holland, France, and Italy.

The first institution of higher secular education in Russia was the Moscow State University, founded in 1755 by the scientist Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov, after whom it is now named; it developed, along with other Russian secular universities, under German and other foreign influences. The universities of Vilna and Dorpat, although founded earlier, were primarily religious in orientation.

D The 19th Century to the Present

The post-Industrial Revolution era, with the growth of the middle class, provided much of the impetus for expanding European higher education. During the 19th century, German universities became influential sources of scholarly research and examples of academic freedom. The University of Berlin was noted for philosophy; Göttingen for literature and mathematics; Heidelberg for mathematics and the classics; Leipzig for psychology; and Jena for pedagogy. Many students from foreign countries obtained their Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees from German universities.

British institutions founded during this period include the universities of London and Durham (the first new English universities established after the Middle Ages), as well as the universities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Wales. Unlike the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge (founded in the 12th and 13th centuries, respectively), which represented the Establishment, social prestige, and relatively conservative views, these and other institutions familiarly referred to as “red brick universities” attracted students and faculty with advanced social and political ideas, as typified later by the post-World War II “angry young men” writers who studied or taught in these schools.

In Canada, in the 19th century, McGill University and the universities of Toronto and Montreal were founded.

Among new 19th-century universities on the Continent were those in Berlin, St Petersburg, Athens, Bucharest (Romania), and Sofia (Bulgaria). In India, the universities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, all established in 1857, were formed as examining bodies along the lines of the University of London. Today the University of Sydney (1850), the oldest university in Australia, has one of the highest enrollments of Australia’s institutions of higher education—which include Monash in Victoria; Melbourne; Adelaide; and Queensland.

The growth of universities in China was slowed down by civil unrest during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The University of Beijing was founded in 1896; most of the other colleges and technical institutions date from the 1920s or after World War II. Japanese universities include Tokyo (1877) and Kyoto (1897).

Throughout the 19th century and up to the present, college and university students were generally in the vanguard of radical and revolutionary thought. Russian universities grew in number and influence in the 19th century, and until the Revolution of 1917, they offered studies in the classics, science, Russian literature, and history. They were also centres of radical and revolutionary political doctrines and activities. The government periodically withdrew academic privileges and imprisoned faculty members and students, but this control could not stem the tide of revolutionary thought. Restrictive and repressive measures by the administration and government authorities, as in tsarist Russia, and in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, often led to student protests and riots and to school closures.

In the post-World War II era, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, many universities were established in the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as in the developing nations of Asia and Africa.

The 1960s also saw periods of student unrest as, for example, in the United States, where protests were held against the Vietnam War. More recently, in 1989, Tiananmen Square in China was the scene of student prodemocracy demonstrations, resulting in widely televised, violent clashes.

The 1970s fostered the establishment of the Open University, which offers degree courses to people from all walks of life, by providing lessons on television, radios, and by post. The first Open University was created in the United Kingdom, in 1971; various countries, including India and South Africa, have followed suit.

One of the major problems faced by universities and students in the past decade or so has been that of funding, with reduced grants and the introduction of student loans (in the United Kingdom).

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