Scottish Universities in the Nineteenth Century

Background: the ancient universities
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Scotland's five university colleges had about 3,000 students between them. They had no entrance exam, students typically entered at ages of 15 or 16, attended for as little as two years, chose which lectures to attend and left without qualifications. Although Scottish universities had gained a formidable reputation in the eighteenth century, particularly in areas like medicine and had produced leading scientists such as Joseph Black (1728-99), the curriculum was dominated by divinity and the law and there was a concerted attempt to modernise the curriculum, particularly by introducing degrees in the physical sciences and the need to reform the system to meet the needs of the emerging middle classes and the professions. The result was two commissions of inquiry in 1826 and 1876 and reforming acts of parliament in 1858 and 1889.

The curriculum and system of graduation were reformed. Entrance examinations equivalent to the School Leaving Certificate were introduced and average ages of entry rose to 17 or 18. Standard patterns of graduation in the arts curriculum offered 3-year ordinary and 4-year honours degrees. There was resistance among professors, particularly among chairs of divinity and classics, to the introduction of new subjects, particularly the physical sciences. The crown established Regius chairs, all in the sciences, including medicine, chemistry, natural history and botany. The chair of Engineering at Glasgow was the first of its kind in the world. By the 1870s the physical sciences were well established in Scottish universities, whereas in England the battle would not be complete until the end of the century. The new separate science faculties were able to move away from the compulsory Latin, Greek and philosophy of the old MA curriculum. Under the commissions all the universities were restructured. They were given Courts, which included external members and who oversaw the finances of the institution. Under the 1889 act new arts subjects were established, with chairs in Modern History, French, German and Political Economy.

The University of St Andrews was at a low point in its fortunes in the early part of the century. It was restructured by commissioners appointed by the 1858 act and began a revival. It pioneered the admission of women to Scottish universities, creating the Lady Licentiate in Arts (LLA), which proved highly popular. From 1892 Scottish universities could admit and graduate women and the numbers of women at Scottish universities steadily increased until the early twentieth century. The University of Glasgow became a leader in British higher education by providing the educational needs of youth from the urban and commercial classes. It moved from the city centre to a new set of grand neo-Gothic buildings, paid for by public subscription, at Gilmorehill in 1870. The two colleges at Aberdeen were considered too small to be viable and they were restructured as the University of Aberdeen in 1860. A new college of the university was opened in Dundee in 1883. Unlike the other Medieval and ecclesiastical foundations, the University of Edinburgh was the "tounis college", founded by the city after the Reformation, and was as a result relatively poor. In 1858 it was taken out of the care of the city and established on a similar basis to the other ancient universities.

The result of these reforms was a revitalisation of the Scottish university system, which expanded to 6,254 students by the end of the century and produced leading figures in both the arts and sciences. The chair of Engineering at Glasgow became highly distinguished under its second incumbent William John Macquorn Rankine (1820-72), who held the position from 1859 to 1872 and became the leading figure in heat engines and founder president of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. Thomas Thomson (1773-1852) was the first professor of Chemistry at Glasgow and in 1831 founded the Shuttle Street laboratories, perhaps the first of their kind in the world. His students founded practical chemistry at Aberdeen soon after. William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin was appointed to the chair of natural philosophy at Glasgow aged only 22. His work included the mathematical analysis of electricity and formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. By 1870 Kelvin and Rankine made Glasgow the leading centre of science and engineering education and investigation in Britain.

At Edinburgh, major figures included David Brewster (1781-1868), who made contributions to the science of optics and to the development of photography. Fleeming Jenkin (1833-85) was the first professor of engineering at the university and among wide interests helped develop ocean telegraphs and mechanical drawing. In medicine Joseph Lister (1827-1912) and his student William Macewen (1848-1924), pioneered antiseptic surgery. The University of Edinburgh was also a major supplier of surgeons for the royal navy, and Robert Jameson (1774-1854), Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh, ensured that a large number of these were surgeon-naturalists, who were vital in the Humboldtian and imperial enterprise of investigating nature throughout the world. Major figures to emerge from Scottish universities in the science of humanity included the philosopher Edward Caird (1835-1908), the anthropologist James George Frazer (1854-1941) and the sociologist and urban planner Patrick Geddes (1854-1932).