Primer: A Global History of Higher Education
Histories of higher education tend to focus on a single institution – the university biography – or address the subject within the context of the nation-state. These approaches offer granular details and important insights into educational practice, but ‘scaling up’ presents new opportunities to consider institutions that produced (and were the product of) imperially and globally sourced technologies, ideas, and expertise. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, universities became tremendous drivers of globalization and economic development, as well as engines of technological innovation and cultural expression. In this essay, historian Caitlin Harvey outlines how studying institutions of higher education within an imperial or global context can reveal patterns in their development that are not discernible at the level of a single university. At the same time, examining universities together can uncover broader insights about the societies from which they emerged, including how systems of settler colonial governance, empire, and Indigenous dispossession operated, often outside of the logics of the nation-state.
Histories of higher education tend to focus on a single institution – the university biography – or address the subject within the context of the nation-state. These approaches offer granular details and important insights into educational practice, but ‘scaling up’ presents new opportunities to consider institutions that produced (and were the product of) imperially and globally sourced technologies, ideas, and expertise. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, universities became tremendous drivers of globalization and economic development, as well as engines of technological innovation and cultural expression. Studying institutions of higher education within an imperial or global context can help us to locate patterns in their development that are not discernible at the level of a single university. At the same time, examining universities together can uncover broader insights about the societies from which they emerged, including how systems of settler colonial governance, empire, and Indigenous dispossession operated, often outside of the logics of the nation-state.
There are many excellent ways to engage with the history of higher education. In teaching this subject within an imperial or global context, three features of university-building collapse physical and conceptual distances between campuses, while keeping local imperatives in view. These are: institutional financing (1), alumni networks (2), and research products (3). In what follows, we’ll consider these areas as they relate to university development in nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In particular, Britain’s colonies of settlement and their self-governing successors – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States – experienced rapid university growth from 1850. Like empires before and after it, Britain’s global empire enabled mobility and interconnection between its constituent parts. Imperial ties and transport facilitated the movement of students, technologies, academics, and ideas between colonial institutions, so that these universities did not develop in isolation from one another. Instead, educationalists who were oceans apart faced similar challenges and drew on imperial networks to overcome them.
Over the past ten years, the study of university finance has expanded. Popular movements such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ have alerted the public to universities’ colonial legacies, while writers such as Craig Steven Wilder, Robert Lee, and Tristan Ahtone reassess both university endowment-building and who benefitted from newly established institutions of higher education (Wilder 2006; Lee and Ahtone 2020). In the nineteenth century, much like today, building universities was a very capital-intensive process. Educationalists typically sought out three forms of university financing in addition to charging student fees. These were: public or government grants, land grants from their governments or ecclesiastical reserves that could be sold to yield an endowment, and benefactions. Revenue from these streams often sprang from the directives of local, regional, or national legislatures. Yet they might also be invigorated by European investors, imperial parliaments, or the growing interconnection of settler societies. The British state, according to the historian William Whyte, invested at least £37,000 between 1790 and 1834 to prop up the King’s College Windsor in Nova Scotia (Whyte 2015). Among colonial institutions established later in the nineteenth century, imperial intervention and interconnection shaped distinctive financing strategies that educationalists in different colonies communicated across tremendous distances. Historians continue to trace these lines of institutional interconnection.
Institutional funding based upon extractive industries and Indigenous land were strategies practiced in many settler colonies. This was largely due to a lack of available capital. For example, among one set of nineteenth-century institutions, the global gold and mineral rushes that occurred after 1848 across California, Australasia, South Africa, and Canada enabled university development by invigorating government revenues, increasing land values, and creating an array of potential benefactors. Distant yet interconnected mineral booms linked the fortunes of equally distant ‘goldfield foundation’ universities. These institutions, including the universities of California, Melbourne, Adelaide, British Columbia, Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Witwatersrand, and Otago, benefitted from globally-sourced mining techniques and technologies. To capture this mineral wealth, politicians in the state of Victoria, Australia, as in others, charged gold excise fees and sold licenses eventually called the “miner’s right”. They also built a Mint, priced mining supplies at elevated rates, and redirected gold-derived revenues into public ventures (Tully and Whitehead 2009; Government of New Zealand 1872).
At the same time, other cash poor settler-colonial governments used land as a financial tool. Across settler societies (including the United States), legislatures granted huge swathes of land – millions of acres altogether – to fund new universities. Yet much of this land had not been ceded by Indigenous peoples. Its reassignment amounted to an enormous wealth transfer from Indigenous populations to universities (see annotated source 1). Together, these two financial mechanisms – minerals and land – provided crucial foundations for universities. They also emerged and operated on an imperial scale, allowing scholars to explore supranational influences upon university development and to identify new mechanisms of territorialization practiced by settler-colonial states.
Among nineteenth-century universities, alumni networks were similarly oriented along imperial lines before national ones. For new universities with shaky social and financial foundations, alumni and their networks were a crucial resource. As universities produced more graduates, these alumni gradually bestowed authority (and money) upon their alma maters as they took up outside positions in government, business, or empire (see annotated source 2). Britain’s Colonial Service made use of university graduates whose knowledge of medicine, agriculture, and engineering might aid imperial projects in Africa or Asia. In the twentieth century, America’s growing empire relied upon university-trained ‘experts’ and their technocratic expertise in comparable ways. A promotional pamphlet of the University of California boasted in 1902 that “many of its [the university’s] alumni have been called to China, Japan, the Philippines, Guam, New Zealand and the Hawaiian islands, as teachers, engineers, chemists and public officials, and this call will grow constantly more imperative” (Henderson 1902). Alumni thus extended the influence of higher education institutions well beyond their city, state, or country.
As historians look beyond national histories, they have increasingly identified overlapping communities of experts that grew out of institutional relationships and that transformed these ties into international organizations and academic societies. American graduates in mining joined international conferences and imperial organizations starting in the late-nineteenth century, such as the Transvaal Chamber of Mines and the Empire Mining and Metallurgical Congress (Transvaal Chamber of Mines 1903). Imperial linkages of trade, transport, and capital facilitated the intertwining of university systems and international organizations, encouraging the transit of globally mobile graduates. Historians David Lambert and Alan Lester demonstrate that graduates with “imperial careers” were a boon both to the institutions that educated them and to the empires and industries that employed them (Lambert and Lester 2006). Moreover, schemes developed to recruit talent that still exist today – such as the Rhodes, Gilchrist, and Commonwealth scholarships – were made possible by a growing web of new universities. Institutional relationships and alumni networks thus disembedded the knowledge fashioned by universities, while simultaneously entrenching universities’ position as local hubs of imperial connection, essential both to local and national socioeconomic development.
A final way we might explore the development of higher education beyond the nation-state is by examining universities’ research products. University-produced innovations in medicine, mining, the arts, and agriculture had wide-ranging impacts. A.G.M. Mitchell for one, a graduate of the University of Melbourne’s engineering program in 1905, developed a “thrust bearing” adopted by “all new British warships” during the First World War. This technology afforded an “annual saving to the Navy alone in coal and oil [that] was given as at least £800,000” (Chapman 1921). New technologies in farming also circulated, such as the fixation of nitrogen in soils, advancing farming in incremental and sometimes revolutionary ways.
The “knowledge” and “education” offered by settler universities, however, were not neutral intellectual products or categories. How institutions collect, organize, produce, and esteem types of knowledge has significant ramifications for the creation of social and scientific categories outside of them. Scholars such as Saul Dubow investigate the links between intellectual formations inside the university and their impact on identity and social organization outside of it (Dubow 2006). For instance, many settler and land-grant universities institutionalized and promoted one form of knowledge about land cultivation, based upon the growing field of agricultural science, to the detriment of another: Indigenous epistemologies of land caretaking. The effect of this knowledge valuation transformed landscapes. Products of university agricultural research like hybridized corn and seed varietals altered local ecologies in line with settler knowledge systems and entrenched settlers’ relationship to the land – actions that have had lasting political and ecological legacies.
Universities after 1850 increasingly engaged with a globalizing world. For many of the colonial colleges and universities established in this period, their creation first depended upon imperial capital and interconnection even though most would later influence the formation of national industries, identities, and culture. Teaching and studying higher education institutions thus requires attentiveness to the multiple contexts – imperial and global, as well as national and local – that defined universities and that they, in turn, redefined. Even in the nineteenth century, higher education networks and institutional relationships spanned continents. Forms of university financing, alumni networks, and research products offer just three ways of revealing these transcontinental patterns and relationships. Analyses of student exchanges, imperial textbooks and curricula, examinations, research organizations, and educational foundations supply other possibilities (Ashby 1966; Gardner 1979). Exploring how universities grew within empires helps to explain why institutions separated by tremendous distances came to adopt similar approaches to pedagogy and research. It also encourages us to think about how universities borne of global and imperial ties might be a powerful tool for navigating an ever-more interconnected world today.
Map of Land Grant for New Zealand University, 1873
Depicting the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, this map outlines the lands that surround the Kimihia and Hakanoa Lakes in the Waikato Region. Small plots of land, 50 acres each, are demarcated and assigned to various landholders. Running parallel to these plots is the Waikato River, the map’s westernmost feature. Along its eastern edge are most of the demarcated plots, each one named and numbered for an intended buyer or lessee. Names such as “Jackson” or “McKinley” fill the map, creating a patchwork of named, blocked-shaped properties. But the map’s largest feature, hundreds of acres in size, is labelled “Endowment for Colonial University”. Such a substantial block of land would not only have been greater than the size of a university’s campus, but it was also located in the Waikato – hundreds of miles away from Christchurch, the principal site of the University of New Zealand (UNZ), and from any of the UNZ’s constituent colleges.
We tend to think of universities as distinctive, place-based communities. Possibly the longest-lasting myth of the “land-grant university” is that its operations existed in one place – usually the university’s host city or campus. Yet as these maps reveal, the territorial reach of early universities in Anglo-American settler societies extended far beyond their campuses. Fledgling public universities – especially in Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, but also in Australia and South Africa – received substantial blocks of expropriated Indigenous territory as financing from their governments in the nineteenth century (Harvey 2021). These lands, millions of acres altogether, could then be leased or sold to raise universities’ endowment capital.
Produced in 1873, the “New Zealand University” map was sent from the Registrar of the UNZ to the office of New Zealand’s colonial secretary. At this time, New Zealand was a British colony of settlement, having officially become a settler colony with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Maori chiefs in 1840. New settler-governments like the one in New Zealand hoped to build churches, schools, and other social institutions to cement their connection to the lands they occupied. But they were cash poor. Accordingly, this map exposes one mechanism through which certain settler governments, including those in New Zealand, raised new institutions’ endowment capital. Land leases, mortgages, and using land as collateral for loans were not the only financing strategies of public universities, but they were significant ones.
This pattern of institutional development, furthermore, was not unique to New Zealand. Other colonies of settlement once within, or formerly within, the British Empire – especially Canada and the United States – similarly relied upon Indigenous land to fund higher education. Educationalists within these places communicated with one another, usually through letters and colonial newspapers, and compared institutional funding models. Intercolonial learning was central to the spread of this form of institutional financing. Settlers who were oceans apart faced similar challenges – from being cash-poor to attracting students – and relied upon imperial networks to surmount them. By the nineteenth century, the relationship between universities and landholding was longstanding, drawing inspiration from the land ownership practices of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
This source is part of the global history of higher education methods primer.
Map of Land Grant for Cornell University, 1877
Similar to the New Zealand land grant, yet within a distinct political context, the development of land-grant universities in the United States followed and encouraged an institutional financing model based upon Indigenous land acquisition, leasing, and sale. The second map/image shows two snapshots from a “Map Showing Cornell University Lands in Wisconsin for sale”. Published in 1877, this map imposes a grid over top of the depicted timberland regions of northern Wisconsin. The title’s subtext notes that “those desiring information in regard to these Lands with a view of purchasing any portion thereof will apply to the Treasurer of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. or to the University Land Agency at Eau Claire, Wis.” Much of the land shown, distant from New York, had been purchased on the institution’s behalf by Cornell’s namesake and businessman, Ezra Cornell. Under the Morrill Act of 1862, the U.S. federal government apportioned public lands to each state to fund an institution of higher learning, equivalent to “thirty thousand acres for each senator and representative in Congress” (Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress 1862). Educationalists like Cornell thus exercised considerable power to select and act as stewards over federally-granted university lands.
However, as in New Zealand and elsewhere, the lands granted represented a considerable wealth transfer from Indigenous communities to universities. As the historian Bobby Lee and journalist Tristan Ahtone have recently demonstrated, the full territorial reach of America’s “land-grant universities” extended to over 11 million acres (Lee and Ahtone 2020). Cornell University alone received over 900,000 acres, one of the largest grants to a single institution in the United States. The “Cornell University Lands” map, and others like it, helped to facilitate the sale and transfer of Indigenous lands, recording plots already sold through the shading of grid-boxes and advertising others as available for sale. The proximity of these plots to the “Lake Court Oreilles Indian Reserve” features in the second snapshot. Along with the UNZ map and others like it, Cornell’s land-grant map reveals an institutional financing strategy favored by many settler educationalists. At the same time, it exposes educational institutions as one of the less-obvious mechanisms through which empires sustained their influence.
Maps of university landholding, therefore, encourage us to reconsider the history of universities in settler societies. By exploring how and why these nineteenth-century societies – from the state of New York to the provinces of New Zealand – adopted land-granting as a common university financing strategy, we can uncover a pattern of institutional development that extended beyond the nation-state, and understand the ways in which higher education institutions acted as agents of colonization and beneficiaries of Indigenous removal.
This source is part of the global history of higher education methods primer.
“The South African College and Its ‘Old Boys,’” 1886
The 1886 article, “The South African College and Its ‘Old Boys’,” provides an example of how universities extended their influence within an empire (or globally) through alumni and their expertise. Founded in 1821, the South African College (SAC) first assumed the functions of a grammar school, training an Afrikaner and English “settler elite”, before evolving into the University of Cape Town in 1918. This Colonies and India article gestures to the College’s significance as a socialization ground for elites and as a pipeline to sociopolitical power in South Africa, and beyond it. It advertises the formation of an “Old Boys’ Club” that might interest its alumni in South Africa, but also “in London and in other parts of the world”.
“Old boys”, a term used in Britain, the United States, and British settlement societies, referred to the male alumni of a particular institution, whether at a secondary or tertiary level. These “boys” typically held gatherings, banquets, club events, and scholarship fundraisers, such as the London meeting presided over by Sir Henry De Villiers. Other examples of these types of gatherings include the functions of the “old boys” of the Diocesan College at the University of Stellenbosch or the London events of the “Association of Old Belfastmen”. In common with the labels of “Harvard man”, “Yale Man”, and “Oxford Man”, the ‘old boys’ designation carried strong class and status connotations (Dooling 2005; Tyler 1896). The social relations and networking among male university graduates were essential to forming elites across generations.
Sources like this article, therefore, urge us to examine the role of universities not only in national contexts, but in international and imperial ones as well. Transnational networks of graduates and expertise were a source of institutional strength, as the achievements and money of university graduates filtered back to the university. At the same time, and as the historian Tamson Pietsch has argued in relation to academic networks in the British Empire, the formal and informal associations of university alumni “crystallized imperial bonds” across tremendous distances and became a source of imperial power (Pietsch 2013). Graduates in engineering, agriculture, mining, and medicine could repurpose the knowledge they had gained at universities in service of an industry, nation, or empire. Studying the impact of “old boys’ clubs” beyond the university, or how graduates applied information and curricula learned in one context to their professional work in different one, can help us to explore larger historical questions about knowledge transfer, globalization, and forms of imperialism.
This source is part of the global history of higher education methods primer.
Act of July 2, 1862 (Morrill Act), Public Law 37-108; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996; Record Group 11, General Records of the United States Government, National Archives.
Chapman, Silas. Map Showing Cornell University Lands in Wisconsin for sale. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Lithographing & Engraving Co., 1877. H GX902 1877 C, Wisconsin Historical Society.
“Empire Mining and Metallurgical Congress,” Nature 113, no. 2851 (June 1924): 906-910.
Henderson, Victor. “Sunset: A Magazine of the Border.” Item 12, 1902. Pamphlets Descriptive of the University of California Berkeley. 308g.P18. The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.
Public Accounts of the Government of New Zealand for the Financial Year 1870-1871. Wellington: Government of New Zealand, 1872.
“Registrar of New Zealand University, Christchurch to Colonial Secretary, Wellington.” 19 May
1873. Record 1873/1643. Ref. IA1 354. Item 14. Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga, Wellington.
“The South African College and Its ‘Old Boys’.” The Colonies and India. London, UK. 17 December 1886.
State Library of South Australia. “Engineering and the University: Commemorative Address by R.W. Chapman.” Adelaide: Hassell Press, 1921. S Australiana Pamphlets 620.7 C466.
Strahan, J.A. “Invitation .” Association of Old Belfastmen. University Archive, Queen’s University Belfast. QUB/1/18/2, Northern Ireland.
Transvaal Chamber of Mines, Thirteenth Report for the Year 1902. Johannesburg: Argus Printing and Publishing Company, Limited., 1903.
Tyler, Robert Lee. A Yale Man: A Novel. New York: Street & Smith, 1896.
UCT Special Collections. 1034-D4. Stellenbosch Students' Annual, 1893-4. Cape Town: Townshend,Taylor & Snashall, 1894.
Ashby, Eric. Universities: British, Indian, African; a Study in the Ecology of Higher Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Beinart, William, Karen Brown, and Daniel Gilfoyle, “Experts and Expertise in Colonial Africa Reconsidered: Science and the Interpenetration of Knowledge,” African Affairs 108, no. 432 (2009): 413-433.
Dooling, Wayne. “The Making of a Colonial Elite: Property, Family and Landed Stability in the Cape Colony, c.1750-1834.” Journal of Southern African Studies 31, no. 1 (2005): 147-162.
Dubow, Saul. A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa, 1820-2000. Oxford: OUP, 2006.
Durrill, Wayne K. “Shaping a Settler Elite: Students, Competition and Leadership at South African College, 1829-95.” Journal of African History 41 (2000): 221-239.
Gardner, W.J. Colonial Cap and Gown: Studies in the Mid-Victorian Universities. Christchurch: University of Canterbury, 1979.
Harvey, Caitlin. “The Wealth of Knowledge: Land-Grab Universities in a British Imperial and Global Context.” Native American and Indigenous Studies 8, no. 1 (2021): 97-105.
Lambert, David and Alan Lester. Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Lee, Robert and Tristan Ahtone. “Land-Grab Universities.” High Country News. 30 March 2020 https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.4/indigenous-affairs-education-land-grab-universities.
Pietsch, Tamson. Empire of Scholars: Universities, Networks, and the British Academic World, 1850-1939. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.
Tully, Kaye and Clive Whitehead. “Audacious Beginnings: the Establishment of Universities in Australasia, 1850-1900.” Education Research and Perspectives 36, no. 2 (2009): 1-44.
Whyte, William. Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain's Civic Universities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.
Caitlin Harvey is an Early Career Research Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge. Her research examines the history of migration, race, settlement, and education in a British imperial and global context. She holds a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. Her current book project, Bricks and Mortar Boards: University-Building in the Settlement Empire, 1840-1920, examines the rapid expansion of university education across Britain’s colonies of settlement and their self-governing successors – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States – from new universities’ shaky beginnings at the start of the nineteenth century to their firm foundations and continued growth a century later.