When Was Cambridge University Founded?
When was Cambridge University founded
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When Was Cambridge University Founded?

Vincent Ralph June 25, 2022

The University of Cambridge is one of the oldest and most famous universities in the world. Known for its incredibly tough entry requirements, world-class teaching, and rivalry with a certain other Russell Group member, Cambridge is seen as a dream university for many.

Given its importance in the Higher Education landscape, it’s no surprise that the University of Cambridge was founded a very long time ago. To be specific, it was all the way back in 1209 when the institution was formed and that is the anniversary it acknowledges today. It was first organised under a chancellor in 1225 and Henry VIII granted it a royal charter in 1231.

Cambridge’s history is intrinsically linked with Oxford. It is claimed that, in 1209, three Oxford scholars were hanged for the death of a woman. At the time, in usual circumstances, the scholars would have been pardoned due to their standing. However, ecclesiastical authorities were not informed, leading to disputes between students and townsfolk. As a result, a number of academics fled to Cambridge where they formed their own university.

The University of Cambridge was granted a bull by Pope Gregory IX in 1233, giving graduates the right to teach anywhere in ‘the Christian world’.

By 1318, it had become common for researchers from across Europe to visit Cambridge to study or give lectures.

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How old is Cambridge University?

The University of Cambridge is 813 years old. That makes it the third-oldest university currently in full operation on Earth.

The second-oldest is, unsurprisingly given the history, the University of Oxford, which is 926 years old. The only other institution older than Cambridge is a little further afield.

The University of Bologna holds the title of the world’s oldest university, at the grand old age of 932. But Cambridge is older than every other higher education establishment on the planet, which is no mean feat.

As a result of its age, a number of myths have been born over the years relating to Cambridge. However there is one that is – or at least was – true.

Prior to 1909, a wooden spoon was presented to the student with the lowest passing honours grade in the final exams of the Mathematical Tripos. But this was no ordinary spoon. It was over a metre long and had an oar for a handle – so not the kind of thing you can eat a boiled egg with!

The last claimant was Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse and one wonders if the tradition would still be in place today were it not for a change of protocol.

These days, results are published alphabetically within class, rather than in strict order of merit. So it is no longer possible to work out who would actually get the ‘spoon’. Still, it is on display if you ever want to see a piece of Cambridge history.

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Is Cambridge University private or public?

The University of Cambridge is public. This means they are currently under state control and their tuition fees are in line with those decided by the UK government.

Like any university, if Cambridge did ultimately declare itself independent, it could set its own fees. Issues regarding university funding have been widely reported and there are questions over whether elite universities have the money required to maintain that level.

Should Cambridge (or Oxford) ever go private, they could raise their costs.

This was something discussed in a 2017 Guardian report but, as yet, nothing has changed in that regard. Of course, the issue here is that, in charging more for a university degree, it would widen rather than narrow the gap between rich and poor in higher education.

Modern teaching

The Cambridge University Act of 1856 saw a number of new subjects introduced including theology, the arts and modern languages. The first PHD was awarded in the early twentieth century.

Cambridge is the only remaining university in the UK with female-only colleges – Newnham and Murray Edwards. The former men’s colleges began to accept women between 1972 and 1988.

The ratio of women to men in the 2019-2022 academic year was 53% male to 47% female.

The University of Cambridge is widely regarded as one of the finest Higher Education establishments in the world and, given its rich history, plenty will be hoping to join the next intake.

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Vincent Ralph is Senior Managing Editor at GRV Media. He graduated with a BA (Hons) in English Literature from the University of Greenwich and later completed his NCTJ in Newspaper and Magazine Journalism while studying in Cornwall. He was previously Head of Sixth Form at a secondary school in Kent, where he worked with hundreds of 16 to 19-year-olds over eight years. He joined GRV Media in 2014, working his way up from football writer to a senior member of staff. After two years as Managing Editor of Rousing The Kop and The Boot Room he became Senior Managing Editor of new student website Freshered. Vincent is a two-time New York Times bestselling author and his second novel is also a USA Today bestseller and the winner of the Southern Schools Book Award.