11 February 1826: England gets its third university

London University – later University College, London – was founded on this day in 1826, becoming in the process England's third university.

England has a proud history of university education. The oldest, Oxford University, was founded some time in the 11th or 12th century. Probably – nobody's quite sure. Cambridge came into being at the beginning of the 13th century after Oxford students and townies fell out, leaving two students dead. But for the next 600 years, they were the only universities in England. (For a brief period between 1261 and 1265, there was the University of Northampton. But Oxford saw that as a threat, and so it had to go.)

It wasn't until 1826 that England got a third university (Scotland had four, founded between 1413 and 1592), when “London University” – later to be renamed University College, London – was founded. (There is some debate, however, over whether the UCL actually was a university. It was a private company with shareholders, and did not receive a royal charter.)

In contrast to Oxford and Cambridge, where one had to be a member of the Church of England to study, UCL was founded on strict secular lines, open to anyone, regardless of their religion. (Anyone male, that is – it would take another 50-odd years before women were allowed in on the same basis as men.) This godless nonsense caused quite a stir. So to counter it, King's College was set up in 1829 to provide an Anglican alternative in London. 

The two colleges soon put aside their theological differences, however, when in 1836, they combined forces to form the federal University of London. London University underwent a rapid expansion in the 20th century, with Bedford College, Royal Holloway College and the London School of Economics joining in 1900. It currently has 17 colleges with over 120,000 students.

The early 20th century saw a wave of new universities founded in England, including Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. And in the 1960s, the number of universities more than doubled. In 1992, the Further and Higher Education Act saw many polytechnic colleges become universities. The current number of universities in England stands at 91.

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