BA History and Russian

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Universities and Knowledge-Making on the Long 19th Century in Britain and Beyond

Course unit fact file
Unit code HIST32471
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 6
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course aims to explain how universities – which looked like anachronisms in the 18th century – came by the 20th century to be inescapable institutions of the modern world, and in particular the primary institutions engaged in the production as well as the dissemination of knowledge. It focuses on Britain, including its settler colonies, but in transnational context through consideration of the impact of German and American universities. It considers universities in relation to the wider network of knowledge institutions to which they belonged, including learned societies, museums, libraries, mechanics’ institutes, general periodicals and scientific journals. 

Key questions include: 

How and why did universities survive the age of reform? 

How far and why were nineteenth-century knowledge institutions riven by a battle between ‘two cultures’? 

Who exercised power in and over universities? How far did the location of this power change over the nineteenth century? 

What kinds of knowledge were privileged in universities? How can we use undergraduate curricula to answer this question? 

How far did the universities’ rise to domination of knowledge production marginalize rival knowledge institutions and hence other claims to knowledge? 

How far had universities by 1918 become ‘research universities’?


The course unit aims to: 

explore the structural and contingent factors that enabled the survival and transformation of universities in the nineteenth century 

analyse the place that universities occupied in the wider field of knowledge institutions in the long nineteenth century 

assess the interplay between local and national contexts and the transnational diffusion of models of the university 

equip students with the knowledge and skills to think critically about current debates about the purpose of universities

Teaching and learning methods

3-hour weekly seminar, comprising seminar activities (small-group exercises and plenary discussion) and a lecture, usually introducing the next week’s topic

Knowledge and understanding

Critical understanding of influential approaches to the historiography of the history of knowledge and the history of universities 

Nuanced understanding of nineteenth-century debates about the purpose of universities in their intellectual context 

Broad understanding of the transformation of universities in the long nineteenth-century

Intellectual skills

Critically assess the ways in which ideas are generated in particular historical contexts, and for a range of purposes. 

Synthesise and critically assess scholarly literature. 

Analyse online primary source material belonging to a variety of genres in seminar activities and in written assessments

Practical skills

make extensive and appropriate critical use of a wide range of library, electronic and online resources. 

locate and retrieve relevant information from primary sources and critically analyse it in depth 

conduct bibliographic searches and treat the findings critically 

present results in a scholarly and analytical manner with appropriate reference to primary sources and modern scholarship

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Effective writing skills, including the ability to construct a cogent argument and to deploy evidence accurately and appropriately 

Enhanced confidence in working both individually and in small groups 

Improved oral communication skills through presentation of arguments in class discussion

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Other 40%
Written assignment (inc essay) 60%

Literature Review (Summative) 

Feedback methods

Oral feedback in office hours (on plans, etc) (Formative) Written feedback on assignment 1 (Both) Written feedback on assignment 2 (Primarily summative)

Recommended reading

Anderson, R.D. British Universities Past and Present (London: Continuum, 2006) Anderson, R.D. European Universities from the Enlightenment to 1914 (Oxford: OUP, 2004) 

Burke, Peter. A Social History of Knowledge vol 2 (Cambridge: Polity, 2012) 

Collini, Stefan. What are Universities For? (London: Penguin, 2012) 

Daunton, Martin (ed). The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain (Oxford: OUP, 2005) 

Davie, George. The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century, 3rd edn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013) 

Ellis, Heather. Masculinity and Science in Britain (London: Palgrave, 2017)

Fyfe, Aileen, and Kidd, Colin (eds). Beyond the Enlightenment: Scottish Intellectual Life, 1790-1914 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023) 

Irish, Tomás. The University at War, 1914-25: Britain, France and the United States (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015) 

Palfreyman, David, and Temple, Paul. Universities and Colleges: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2017) 

Pietsch, Tamson. Empire of Scholars: Universities, Networks, and the British Academic World, 1850-1939 (Manchester: MUP, 2015) 

Rothblatt, Sheldon. The Revolution of the Dons: Cambridge and Society in Victorian England, 2nd edn (Cambridge: CUP, 1981) 

Soffer, Reba. Discipline and Power: The University, History, and the Making of an English Elite, 1870-1930 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994) 

Whyte, William. Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain’s Civic Universities (Oxford: OUP, 2015)

Return to course details