Many residents of Durham, and many students of its university, like to claim that Durham is the third oldest such institution in England, after Oxford and Cambridge. However, a lot of people might be surprised to hear that this claim is not universally accepted. There are three rivals to Durham’s third place status: the University of London, University College London (UCL) and King’s College London. And, to make matters more confusing, UCL and King’s are colleges of the University of London rather than universities in their own right. But let’s try to unravel all these claims and come to some conclusions.

It all depends on how university status is defined. One idea is that an institution becomes a university when it is granted the right by the government to use the title of ‘university’. According to this notion, Durham is England’s third oldest university as it was named as a university in the Durham University Act of 1832 whereas the University of London did not get the right to use this title until 1836. Indeed, the European University Association’s publication, A History of the University in Europe, names Durham as England’s third oldest university, London as the fourth oldest, and UCL and King’s as only colleges of London.

A different idea, however, is that institutions become universities when they are granted royal charters. (A royal charter is a document issued by a monarch granting a person or institution certain rights or a certain status.) According to this definition, King’s College is the third oldest university as it received its charter in 1829. But such a claim is not without its weaknesses as King’s was just a college of the University of London at this time. If this disqualifies King’s, it means that the University of London as a whole is the third oldest as it received its charter in 1836, one year before Durham did. But such a claim also has its shortcomings as many well-known and ancient universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, were not founded by royal charters.

Some people prefer to rely on dictionary definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary states a university is “a high-level education institution in which students study for degrees and academic research is done”. Collins Dictionary defines a university as “an institution of higher education having the authority to award bachelors’ degrees and higher degrees, usually having research facilities.” According to the first definition, King’s College and UCL would qualify as ‘universities’, despite being colleges of a larger university. But Durham would still be the oldest as students there studied for degrees from 1833 onwards. UCL and King’s would be joint fourth oldest as students could study for degrees in these institutions from 1838. These degrees were, however, awarded by the University of London. The Collins definition also favours Durham as London, despite having degree-awarding powers, was classified as an examining body rather than an ‘institution’. Older dictionaries, though, give looser definitions. Johnson’s Dictionary claims a university is a place where ‘all the arts and faculties are taught and studied’. Such a definition might favour King’s, which was established in 1829, three years before Durham. Though UCL was established earlier, in 1826, people often refused to accept its university status as it did not teach ‘all the arts’ as theology was not studied there. Although Durham’s claim is strengthened by the definitions demanding universities have degree awarding powers, it is debatable when these powers need to have begun. UCL and King’s have been able to award their own degrees since 2005 and 2006 respectively. We could ask whether it is more important that institutions can award degrees now or if they could at the time of their foundation.

Despite all the above arguments, most people consider Durham to be England’s third oldest university, but I wouldn’t be surprised if challenges to this status keep being made from our capital for some time to come.

David Sunderland.

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  1. UCL was founded as the University of London
    in 1826. It was set up specifically to break the stranglehold of Oxbridge on higher education – only open to rich, connected, sons of the establishment, who were also members of the Church of England. Until the seismic events of 1826, all others – middle classes, Catholics,
    non-conformists, women etc had no access to university. In 1826 the University
    of London was set up to change this. The
    establishment was furious branding the third university in England “the Godless college” and refusing to grant a Royal Charter. The University of London continued regardless. Its purpose was radical, the William Wilkins building went up in Gower Street and the doors were opened. Kings College and Durham were then quickly established as rival new institutions but along establishment lines. The narrative and date line of history shows that UCL (founded as the University of London) is the 3rd
    oldest. Its name was changed to UCL in 1836 when Kings College came into the University of London and the establisment was happy to award a Royal Charter because
    Kings had a chapel and Church of England connection.

    On any standard it is the 3rd oldest.

    • “On any standard it [UCL] is the 3rd oldest.” is a rather bold statement, and obviously untrue if, for example, the standard of being generally recognised as a university or of granting degrees is applied. UCL did start under the name “University of London”, that is true, but it was as a private company which was never recognised as a university. It nearly obtained a royal charter as a university in 1831, which would have made it the third oldest, but a combination of Oxbridge and the CofE blocked it.
      When UCL finally obtained it’s charter in 1836 it was “a barren collegiate charter” in the words of William Tooke, one of its senior figures, leading founder Lord Brougham to say “it went a little to his heart … to sink into a college when they had originally started as an university”.
      “Historyman” should also note that Catholics, non-conformists, etc. we’re able to attend Cambridge, but not to get degrees (a model Durham copied). UCL was founded with the idea that it would become a recognised university and thus be ab!e to grant degrees to non-Anglicans, not merely that it would give them a university education. But UCL failed to become a university, although through its efforts the University of London was founded with the obligation to grant degrees without any religious test.
      UCL was never considered to be a university until the dying days of the 20th century, it was a college – one with a long and proud tradition, but distinctly not a university. Indeed, for most of the 20th century it was what, in Durham terms, would be called a Maintained College – the property of the University of London.
      To turn back to the original article, if we were indeed to ask “whether it is more important that institutions can award degrees now or if they could at the time of their foundation”, we would be forced to consider another contender. St George’s, University of London, another London college, now calls itself, and is generally called, a university; it has its own degree awarding powers; and it predates both UCL and King’s. This, then, is yet another standard by which UCL fails to be England’s third oldest university.
      UCL can rightly claim to be England’s third oldest university institution, and to have played an important role in the liberalising of higher education in England, but its claim to be England’s third oldest university is an ahistorical modern invention that projects back UCL’s current status to the time of its foundation.

    • The sad thing is now UCL want to be an Oxford or Cambridge in title. UCL was never a university. It was just a teaching college with no degree awarding powers (It is like taking a MOOC through Coursera but not getting a transcript from the real university).

      University of London is a collegiate university (like Oxford and Cambridge) having its own constituent colleges. The current UOL is governed by the University of London Act 1994 (and by the statues made under it), passed by the British Parliament.

      The third oldest university is the current University of London, which is led by a Chancellor, a Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Chair of the Board of Trustees.

      UCL is the oldest university institution (not university in itself). Further more in addition, LSE has its own problems. LSE now thinks it is better than all constituent colleges within the collegiate system. I think it is times for separatists to be kicked out.


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