In a 1926 review for the Times Literary Supplement of a book on the history of reform at the University of London, the historian A.F. Pollard suggested that, though the institutional terminology of the University was derived from Cambridge, and though its ‘spiritual ancestry’ originated in Scotland and Germany, ‘its troubles [had] come for the most part from its congenital affinity with English conceptions.’ ‘Its history’, argued Pollard, was ‘a study in schisms and protests, competition and the application of free trade doctrine to the academic business of providing degrees.’

University College was founded in 1926 as a protest against the Anglican exclusiveness of Oxford and Cambridge; King’s College was established three years later in protest at the secular basis of University College; and out of the conflict between them grew the University of London – established in 1836 as a secular degree-granting body that would examine students who had been taught in colleges affiliated to it. This model proved explosive and by 1853, 68 medical and 32 non-medical institutions had acquired ‘affiliated status’, preparing students for London exams. From 1858 even the requirement that academic hopefuls attend classes at one of these institutions was abolished and, other than in medicine, degrees began to be granted on the basis of successful examination performance alone. Billed at the time as a marketplace for the talents, according to Pollard, ‘Laissez-faire could go no farther.’ By the 1880s its disadvantages were apparent: rigid exams imposed a deadening uniformity and restricted innovation in both teaching and research, while the chaotic and unregulated proliferation of educational bodies undermined standards.

The man who perhaps did most to bring about change at the University of London was the Liberal Member of Parliament for Haddingtonshire, Richard Burdon Haldane. In the 1890s he served on the Council of University College London, helping secure the tricky passage of the 1898 University of London Act that ended the reign of the city’s free market in higher education and established centralised faculties with responsibility for monitoring academic standards within affiliated institutions. This, and the associated move of the University headquarters from Burlington Gardens to South Kensington, so enraged some of the professors at University College that they violently attacked him, leading to his resignation from the College Council. However Haldane continued his work, supporting the creation of the University of Liverpool in 1902, chairing in 1904 the Treasury Committee that recommended the establishment of a permanent and impartial advisory body to undertake the distribution of state-aid to universities and Colleges – the University Grants Committee – and chairing a Royal Commission into the University of London.

Informed by his time as a student at the universities of Edinburgh and Göttingen, Haldane believed that higher education played a vital role as an agent of moral, scientific and economic progress. He saw that, in a period of commercial and industrial rivalry, Britain needed to rapidly develop its university system if it was to compete with scientific and technologically advanced countries such as Germany and the United States. To this end Haldane advocated imperial educational co-operation, working-class access and broadened studies, but at the centre of his philosophy was a belief in the need for teaching that was coordinated, personal and not merely instrumental. Like Pollard, Haldane held that in the business of improving higher education provision laissez-faire was the least appropriate doctrine. Only independent universities that combined personal teaching and non-utilitarian research could, he believed, do the job: ‘Nothing less will do than the actual experience of personal connection with the life of a real seat of learning, a University where knowledge and culture are pursued for their own sake.’

Haldane predicted that the changing conditions of the world in the twentieth century would make this kind of higher instruction more necessary than ever. We can only imagine what he would have thought about university reform at the start of the twenty-first. As he said in his address to students at the University of Edinburgh in 1907: ‘Before we can command we must learn to obey, and this also a true University life has to teach.’