June 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the Universities Tests Act, which removed the last religious restrictions for scholars attending the University of Oxford.
In 1581, under Queen Elizabeth I, Oxford ruled that no individual could formally enrol – or ‘matriculate’ – without swearing an oath to the monarch and the Church. Positions within Oxford – whether fellowships in the colleges or professorships within the University – also required similar forms of assent.
Oxford’s restrictions were much stricter than Cambridge’s and those in Ireland and Scotland, and the ruling made Oxford the most exclusive university in the British Isles. Over time, however, pressure grew as a new generation increasingly recognised how distant the university was becoming from society.
Professor Anthony Reddie, Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, said: ‘The 150th anniversary of the Tests Act represents a critical juncture at which to reflect on the long march towards greater equality, diversity, and inclusion in this venerable institution.
In 1854, the requirement to subscribe to the Church of England at both matriculation and graduation was removed – except for students of Theology. But many colleges retained their barriers – and most jobs remained closed to non-Anglicans. It was not until 16 June 1871 that an act of parliament finally opened the University of Oxford – and Cambridge and Durham – to students and staff of all faiths and none. The Universities Tests Act was intended to ensure that ‘the benefits’ of university education ‘should be rendered freely accessible to the nation’.
The Tests Act was an incomplete piece of legislation. Many colleges remained only nominally open to a wider range of people, and 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the admission of women to the University. But the change it heralded was hugely consequential.
The Act was vital in opening Oxford to people of all religions and none, vastly widening the breadth of diverse ethnicities, races, and nationalities attending.
Dr Samina Khan, Director, Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach, said: ‘As someone who is committed to widening access to Oxford, I’m joining the commemoration to mark the 150th anniversary of the 1871 Act, which was one of the first major steps towards making the University more accessible. It appears my predecessors also believed there should be no barriers to achieving your potential, and this belief has brought us this far; whilst understanding that we still have more to do. As we mark this anniversary, I hope we will all be inspired to continue this good work; ensuring that neither religion, race, nationality nor background affect the opportunities available to any individual applying for Oxford.’
New colleges were founded for these new students: Mansfield for Congregationalists and Harris Manchester for Unitarians; Regent’s Park for Baptists; a succession of Roman Catholic foundations, and Somerville was founded as a non-denominational college for women and had no chapel.
The Act of 1871 opened the university to the world. It is no coincidence that the decades afterwards saw the arrival of Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and students from other world faiths to the University and the town as brilliant scholars who would have once been excluded were enabled to attend.
Professor Martin Williams, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, said: ‘I welcome this important project exploring the history of religious diversity at the University. This commemoration offers us the chance to reflect on how much has changed in the past 150 years, but also on how much has stayed the same and what more the University should be doing to accelerate change. As a co-chair of the Race Equality Task Force, I’m acutely conscious of the intersection between faith and race, and that the University still has work to do to make Oxford into a truly inclusive community in which everyone feels welcome and respected. I look forward to some lively discussions of these issues as this commemoration proceeds.’
Oxford’s cityscape was also changed, as new buildings were erected that reflected this diversity and old ones repurposed. That today, the Oxford Chancellor, Lord Patten, and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, are both Roman Catholic would have been unthinkable a century ago. It is only possible because of the Universities Tests Act of 1871.
Miles Young, Warden of New College and Chair of the Conference of Colleges, said: ‘The opening up of Oxford into a genuinely latitudinarian institution can easily be taken for granted. But it represented a closely fought victory for toleration, and an essential foundation for the work that we do today to promote inclusion: for the spirit of not “testing” for someone’s beliefs or background is as important today as the legal form. This anniversary is an important reminder that combatting exclusion requires continuous commitment.’
The University will be marking the 150th anniversary of the Tests Act through the coming year, and more information will be made available on the Opening Oxford website.