Opening Oxford 1871 is a new project funded by the University’s Equality and Diversity Fund. It marks the 150th anniversary of the Universities Tests Act, an act of parliament which finally opened Oxford to all faiths and none. Previously, the University had been largely closed to those who were not members of the established Church. The process was incomplete, not least because women remained excluded. But the result was, in many ways, the beginning of the modern global university, with students and staff of diverse faiths, sexualities, genders, nationalities, and races.
The Act led to a flurry of new colleges at Oxford: Mansfield for Congregationalists and Harris Manchester for Unitarians; Regent’s Park for Baptists; and a succession of Roman Catholic foundations. Although limitations still existed (women were not awarded degrees at Oxford until 1920), the reform encouraged people to imagine other sorts of change, with Somerville founded as a non-denominational women’s college and a non-collegiate foundation established which would later enable the creation of explicitly secular colleges such as St Catherine’s, Linacre, and Wolfson.
The Act of 1871 also 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. The first Jewish fellow of any Oxbridge college was elected in 1882 and would be followed by a succession of important scholars who would otherwise have been excluded: Ernst Chain, who received the Nobel Prize for his work on penicillin; Dorothy Hodgkin, who received it for her work in chemical crystallography; and others.
The Opening Oxford 1871 project aims to use the 150th anniversary of the Act as a lens through which to explore Oxford’s transformational changes over the past century and a half, to discuss ongoing barriers to study and employment, and to map the University’s commitment to opening up further in the post-Covid future.
Professor Paulina Kewes is part of the interdisciplinary team leading the project which also includes Professor Susan Doran, Professor of Early Modern British History, and Reverend Professor William Whyte, Professor of Social and Architectural History.
The project website will be regularly updated with blog posts exploring the Act and its impact on diversity at Oxford from different viewpoints, including how different colleges reacted to the Act, the Church’s changing influence, and the experience of students and staff of different faiths at Oxford. English Faculty alumna Clare Williams is one of the blog contributors with a post about Aspirations, Access & Overcoming. Clare is currently working with Jesus College on an access initiative involving mentoring underrepresented and disadvantaged secondary school pupils, and is fundraising to widen participation.
The Opening Oxford 1871 website will be supported by a series of events celebrating diversity as well as asking which voices are still missing from Oxford. Collaborating with writers, artists, and musicians, the project will stage workshops that engage with students, staff, and the wider community. A series of events showcasing musical traditions of different faiths and races will culminate with a major concert in the Sheldonian in Trinity 2022.
This autumn, the project team will hold structured conversations with small groups of students, staff, and the Oxford community exploring the intersection of faith (or lack thereof) and race that will feed into the Oxford Race Equality Taskforce.
Follow the project on Twitter @Oxford1871 to stay up to date with activities. If you would like to share any recollections or photos of your experience at Oxford which involve the intersection of religion and race, please do get in touch.