By the turn of the 19th century, England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, were facing a barrage of criticism, directed at everything from their supposedly lazy and dissipated students to their unduly lenient exam systems and narrow curriculums. Reform of higher education was coming, but in the meantime, students were enjoying all the fun of the university experience, with very few of the challenges.


If taking a step back in time to a less stressful student life sounds enviable, here’s what every Georgian undergrad needed to know...

There’s no need to be bookish

Everyone followed the same curriculum at university, whatever their future aspirations: if you were at Oxford, you’d be focusing on the Classics and logic, while at Cambridge the emphasis was on mathematics. At both, serious study was strictly optional.

Lectures were few and far between. Most of the learning was self-directed, and supervision was extremely casual. Tutors reportedly had “no concern about [their] pupils” so they were free to do as much or as little as they pleased – and in many cases, it was the latter. “I never saw [my tutor] but during a fortnight, when I took into my head to be taught trigonometry,” wrote one former student, reflecting on university life in the 1760s.

The most privileged students were excused from any teaching at all. Classified either as ‘noblemen’ or ‘gentleman commoners’ depending on whether they had a title, the sons of aristocrats were exempt from many of the rules governing the rest of the student population. Coming away with a degree wasn’t high on their list of priorities; instead, their stint at university was about learning to live independently as a man of fashion. It was their behaviour that prompted the most criticism from observers, who complained that “the higher a young man’s rank is, the more he is suffered to be idle and vicious in our universities”.

You can’t fail

You might imagine a lack of study left students feeling underprepared for their exams, but not so, since failure was virtually unheard of. Most students knew it too, describing the exams as “trifling” and “farcical”.

At Oxford, there were just four short oral tests. The subjects covered were highly predictable, and cheat sheets (known as ‘strings’) were passed freely between undergraduates. These contained arguments students could learn by heart and then parrot for the examiners, “frequently without the least knowledge of what is meant” according to the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1780. Another observer writing in 1782 even went so far as to say that “the greatest dunce” usually passed with “as much ease and credit as the finest genius”. Students reported classmates escaping with BA in hand, despite never having looked into a Latin or Greek textbook since their arrival. And noblemen did not even need to cheat their way to a degree; as long as they had lived in college for a certain number of terms and paid their (higher) fees, they came away a graduate.

Signs of reform had started to emerge by the end of the 18th century, however. Cambridge University had already introduced their Senate House Examination: a much more thorough test of ability, success was rewarded by an honours degree – but there was no obligation to enter for it. If you were content with an ordinary BA (as most were) the exams were no more rigorous than at Oxford.

It is who you know, not what you know

Forming valuable friendships was considered far more useful in the Georgian period than poring over a book for hours on end. Prospective clergymen made up around 60 per cent of the Oxford student population by the end of the 18th century, and about 50 per cent of all graduates at Cambridge. All needed to find a parish living, many of which were in the gift of the aristocracy. Making friends with a privileged classmate could therefore pay dividends.

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Many took the pursuit too far, however, becoming little better than fawning hangers-on. Wry observers had a name for their concerted ‘networking’: ‘tuft-hunting’. It was a nod to the golden tassels found on the caps of the most high-ranking (and therefore useful) students. Since the gown and mortarboard were compulsory wear for students, both in college and out in the town, their tassels made them easily identifiable prey.

You won’t have to keep your accommodation tidy

Most students had a ‘scout’ or a ‘bedder’ who gave them a morning wake-up call, fetched their breakfast and cleaned their clothes. They’d literally make their bed, too, and generally keep their room clean and tidy.

Don’t worry about breaking the rules...

Every college had strict curfews; gates were usually locked by 10pm and those who had to ‘knock up’ the porter after that time could expect a punishment. There were numerous other prohibitions, too: undergrads couldn’t host a private dinner in their rooms or ride a horse; they couldn’t visit an inn or a racecourse; and they were supposed to appear at chapel every day.

The Proctors enforced the rules. They could be found prowling around Oxford and Cambridge after ‘gating’ hours, pulling revelling undergrads out of taverns or houses of ill-repute, and generally frustrating any drunken exploits. Wayward students were punished with fines or ‘rustication’ (a period of suspension), but both were ineffective deterrents. In an amusing spoof written by Jane Austen’s older brother James in 1789, a ‘modern Oxford Man’ recounts a “famous evening till eleven, when the proctors came and told us to go home”. He notes, “went directly the contrary way”. Like all the best satires it was not very far from the truth, as another ironic guide from 1783 confirms. It said students “ought to take every opportunity of appearing to disregard the order of the college” – and they certainly did.

Riding, hunting, gambling and drinking – all outlawed – filled students’ (ample) leisure time. Even the respectable ‘country parson’ James Woodforde regularly overindulged as an Oxford student in the 1760s, vowing “never to get drunk again” after “I fell down dead, and cut my [head] very bad indeed”.

...But try not to get dunned

If the Proctors’ punishments didn’t trouble an undergrad, the ‘dunning’ by tradesmen certainly did. Owing money to creditors was par for the course, particularly if you were without the privileges of rank and title, because then your tutor controlled your allowance. He wouldn’t permit it to be squandered on a round of ale, a bottle or two of claret or a flutter on the races (a situation that caused deep resentment among the student population), so most undergraduates ended up taking goods and services ‘on tick’ – the credit readily offered by local innkeepers and tradesmen. When they couldn’t pay up, students were forced to stay holed up in their rooms, or skulk into town via a back route, in order to dodge the tradesmen lying in wait to demand their money.

But racking up debts wasn’t always a sign of profligacy; university life was every bit as expensive as it is today. By the late 18th century even a relatively frugal student would need at least £100 a year; about the same annual income as a moderately prosperous tradesman. To embrace the entire university experience, £200 or £300 a year was more realistic. For that reason, families with a more modest income would favour professions that didn’t require a prolonged period of education, like the Army or Navy.


Felicity Day is a freelance writer specialising in the history of the Georgian era.


Felicity Day is a journalist specialising in British history and heritage