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June 16, 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the Universities Tests Act 1871, which fully opened the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham to non-Anglicans, who were restricted from membership of England’s historic universities once the Test Act of 1673 came into force. Oxford had an even older restriction on non-Anglicans dating back to 1581. 

English dissenters played a significant role in encouraging the revocation of the Tests Act, since they believed that “Oxford and Cambridge were national institutions which ought to be open to all Englishmen, irrespective of their religious opinions” (Twaddle 1966). Even when the restriction was lifted, however, many English Catholic bishops discouraged Catholic youths from enrolling at Oxford and Cambridge “fearing the universities’ scepticism and Anglican influence” (Yielding 1982, 3).

The Test Acts affected not only British ethnic and religious groups, including English Nonconformists, Catholics, and Jews, but also German Lutherans, French Jews, and Spanish Catholics, who were equally barred from Oxford up to that point. Indeed, the implementation of the Universities Tests Act had international – and quite probably unintended – consequences that have been yet overlooked in the official History of the University of Oxford published by the university itself.

The Alumni Oxoniensis, the University register, records an increase in the frequency of international names from 1871 onwards. For example, Gustave Schorstein of Neuilly, near Paris—the eldest son of Austrian Jew Lazarus Schorstein,—was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated in classics in 1885. He went on to study medicine at the London Hospital.

Another case in point is Guillermo J. de Osma (1853–1922), a Cuban born of French, American, and Peruvian origin and the first Spaniard to study at Oxford after the Universities Tests Act 1871. A diplomat, politician, art collector, and scholar, Osma established the first Spanish studentship and modern endowment at Oxford—the de Osma Studentship—in 1920. The Studentship, which has been open to both men and women since its foundation, supports Spanish Studies. It continues to be under the exclusive remit of the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford and has been held by many distinguished Oxford-trained Hispanists over the past hundred years.

Inez Pearn, of Somerville College, was the first woman to be awarded the de Osma Studentship in 1935 and remained the only female de Osma Student until 1978, when Aviva Aviv, of St Antony’s College, became the first non-British student to receive the Studentship. 

The academic year 2020–21 also marks the centenary of women being allowed to matriculate at Oxford. It’s worth remembering, though, that one Oxford Vice-Chancellor ended a 1922 letter by stating, “I think it would be natural for any Vice-Chancellor (who has the privilege of the Osma appointment solely in his hands) to prefer, ceteris paribus, that a male student should be sent to you” (Farnell 1922). These appointments reflect internal trends and institutional changes, or lack thereof, within the University in the recent past. 

Although there may be work to be done to further diversity and inclusion, the abolition of the Universities Tests Act in 1871 is still an undoubtedly key piece of Westminster legislation that allows Oxford to thrive today as an educational and intellectual home for the nation and the world.  

The piece is based on research for an article published in the Hispanic Research Journal entitled ‘Individual, Institution, and Impact: The Untold History of the de Osma Studentship in Spanish Studies at Oxford’.

Notes:

Farnell, Lewis. 1922. Letter to Javier García de Leániz, 29 September. Beca Osma, Instituto Valencia de Don Juan, Madrid. 

Foster, Joseph. 1888. Alumni Oxonienses: The Members of the University of Oxford, 1715–1886. Oxford: Parker & Co.

Twaddle, Michael. 1966. “The Oxford and Cambridge Controversy of 1834.” British Journal of Educational Studies 14 (3): 45–58.

Yielding, Cheryl. 1982. Emancipation and Renewal: English Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century. Unpublished PhD thesis, Old Dominion University. 

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