Student Life at the University to 1914

Today, the University has a bustling environment, with around 20,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students undertaking study. This is a very different to the environment which the first students of the University, or the College as it was then known, experienced. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the University had a relatively small student population. Only by 1700 did the student population reach around 400. Whilst a small number, this would have been a sizeable number in what was then the small provincial town of Glasgow. However, it is impossible to be certain of the numbers studying at the University at this time as they were not required to matriculate (formally enrol on a course of study) unless they wished to graduate or vote in a Rectorial Election.

Students entered the University as boys, sometimes as young as ten. The majority of students were sons of ministers, burgesses and farmers; these were accompanied by a smaller number of sons of the nobility and gentry, and a number of bursars whose parents could not otherwise afford the expense of higher education. Whilst studying at the College, students had classes and disputations every weekday and on Saturdays, and attended Church as a group every Sunday. Undergraduate arts students, the majority of the student population, were required to wear gowns and were known as the togati (from the Latin for gown). From 1695, there was the further stipulation that this gown was to be scarlet, making the arts students very distinctive around the town.

Whilst there was an expectation that students both lived and studied within College, in practice this was never possible. Accommodation within College was provided for a small number of bursars (students from poorer families nominated by the Town Council) and a number of other students were able to pay for lodgings with College. The sons of the nobility and gentry often lodged with the professors and regents, and a sizeable number of students found lodgings in the town. By the late seventeenth century, no more than half the student population lived within the College. It was at this time that the common table, where staff and students dined together in the common hall was abandoned.

Attendance at the University brought an expectation of certain standards of behaviour, which the leges set out. In addition to wearing the appropriate gown, students were expected to carry a Bible and speak Latin in the company of other students. By the mid-seventeenth century, the College permitted the playing of lawful games, "such as gouffe, archerie and the like". Cards and dice were, however, forbidden. There were occasional official celebrations, with the College windows illuminated with candles and coal bonfires in the High Street and quadrangles, such as those to commemorate such events as King James VI's delivery from the Gunpowder Plot on 5 November 1605 and on coronations.

By 1700, the number of students had started to grow. This was largely due to the requirement for the University and its staff to conform to the newly established Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. As a result, the University attracted Presbyterian students from Scottish Plantation families in Ulster, who felt themselves excluded from Trinity College Dublin which had remained Episcopalian. These students were sometimes, if not always, referred to as Scoto-Hibernus or Hibernus, from the Latin for Ireland. It was not uncommon for the University to welcome students from outwith the local area. Many students travelled between European universities throughout this period, completing one or two years of study before moving on to another institutions. It is known that Scottish students migrated in significant numbers to the Protestant Low Countries, particularly after the Restoration of 1660, as teachers there complained about the poor standard of Latin among these students. In addition, a few Scottish students destined for the Catholic priesthood made their way to France and further afield.

Throughout this period, attendance at the University did not indicate a commitment to a complete course of study through to graduation. From 1662 onwards, there was a mandatory religious test at graduation, but no test for either attendance at class or matriculation. Therefore, there were significant numbers of students with non-conformist beliefs who would take classes but leave without graduating. For many other students, graduation was simply not necessary for their future careers. Graduation could be a useful cache for an ambitious young man who wished to make a career in the Church, and later in law or medicine. However, for a significant number of students, it was simply not required for their advancement.

The number of students attending the University grew throughout the eighteenth nineteenth centuries. From around 400 students in 1700, the student population had more than doubled to 1,000 by 1800. By the time the University moved to Gilmorehill in 1870, the students numbered 1,300.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the trend for students to live in College continued its decline and it became principally a teaching building. A small number of students were able to rent the College's upper rooms, but the majority of students lodged within the town.

In the late 1860s, the University began to prepare for a move from its city centre premises to new accommodation on its present site at Gilmorehill. When the University opened for its new term on 7 November 1870, there was a marked improvement in the accommodation provided in new buildings situated on the banks of the River Kelvin and that which had made way for the railway. The Old College was not, however, forgotten. The Lion and Unicorn Staircase and Pearce Lodge incorporated architectural features removed brick by brick from the Old College and reconstructed on Gilmorehill.

The nineteenth century saw the end of religious tests at graduation, with their abolition in 1828. Whilst this removed a barrier to graduation for those students who did not belong to the established Church, some non-conformists students still refused to graduate because of the continued close links between the University and the Church of Scotland. The University continued to be popular place of study for Ulster Presbyterians throughout the nineteenth century.

By the second-half of the nineteenth century, the tradition of attending a course of study at the University but not graduating was in decline. After the reforms of the Scottish universities of 1858, the number of graduations from the University rose markedly. This was not only a reflection of the growing numbers of students attending the University, but also of the growing esteem in which a degree was held. In addition, the reforms of 1858 had brought in compulsory matriculation for each student for every year of their study at the University. Previously, only those students wishing to graduate or vote in a Rectorial election were required to matriculate. However, from 1859, every student undertaking a course of study at the University was required to matriculate.

The nineteenth century saw dramatic changes in the lives of students at the University. With the transformation of the urban transport network affected by the development of the railways from the mid-nineteenth century, more and more students lived at home. This fundamentally changed the nature of their experience as many of them treated the University as an extension of school or as a place of work, and not of recreation or even extra-curricular intellectual development. Student clubs and societies were established, but these were not as well patronised as they were in other universities. A number of debating and literary societies were formed, but these do not appear to have stood the test of time. In the 1830s, the influence of national politics was felt in the student body. In 1836, the Peel Club was established to commemorate the election of Sir Robert Peel as Rector and promote Conservative principles. The Glasgow University Liberal Association looked to counteract the influence of the Peel Club, but it was denied permission to use University premises to meet. The most important student societies, however, were the two student unions; the Glasgow University Union, founded in 1885, served the male student community, with the Queen Margaret Union accompanying the women who joined the University in 1892. The Students' Representative Council has provided a forum for students to make their opinions heard within the University since 1890.

The most dramatic change to student life, however, came in the 1890s. In 1892 women were permitted to study at Scottish universities. Whilst interaction between male and female students was initially limited, this marked the end of a 440 year tradition of male-only education. In 1894, Marion Gilchrist and Alice (Lily) Cumming became the first women to graduate in Medicine from a Scottish university. In 1892, Queen Margaret College, established in Glasgow in 1883 to provide higher education for women, became part of the University. Initially, separate classes were held for women in most subjects, with the exception of honours level classes where men and women mixed. (For more information see Women in the University.


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