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How World War I changed British universities forever

Thousands of university staff died in the conflict. Shutterstock

November 2018 marks the centenary of the end of the World War I. It was a turning point in British social history, but one aspect that is less well researched is the impact it had on British universities, the subject of my recent book. Based on my archival research, here are some of the most profound ways in which the conflict reshaped higher education.


Universities contributed to the war effort in many ways. Most significantly, the thousands of staff and students who fought as volunteers and conscripted combatants.

In November 1918, the University of Liverpool recorded 1,640 names on its Roll of Honour, including 176 fatalities and many others missing. Similar lists were maintained in every university. The exact number of casualties from UK universities is uncertain, but the numbers were awful. Estimates suggest that Oxford lost 19% of those who served, Cambridge 18%, and Manchester and Glasgow 17%.

Relationship with government

Before 1914, universities were essentially private institutions dependent upon fee income and philanthropy. Central government accepted little responsibility for their work – funding was mainly confined to specific projects.

With the outbreak of war in August 1914, however, universities faced a financial crisis as men volunteered to fight and fee income declined. Many “new” universities founded before the war had few reserves and institutional closures were a real possibility. And so in 1915, reluctantly, the universities were forced to approach the government for help.

At the same time, the government began to recognise the contribution of the universities to the war effort, particularly as the main source of officers for the armed forces and as a focus for war-related research. Consequently, universities and the government found themselves drawn into a closer relationship – and this process resulted in the allocation of special grants to most universities.

Read more: World War I: what we've learned from the 'war to end all wars'

After 1916, the prospects facing universities began to improve. As the government and universities began to look to the end of the war there was increasing recognition that British science had fallen behind international competitors and that universities would fulfil an important role in post-war reconstruction. A consensus also emerged that student numbers must grow to provide a larger skilled workforce.

Most importantly, the government recognised that traditional sources of income would be insufficient to meet this challenge and that government funding would be needed. But with funding would come forms of control and accountability, as had been feared by the universities.

A munitions factory during the war. Universities played their part in developing weaponry. Shutterstock

In 1917-18, civil servants began to refer to a national “system” of higher education, words unheard before the war. A new relationship between the universities and the government was emerging. It is no coincidence that national organisations, such as the University Grants Committee, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Association of University Teachers, which shaped British higher education in the 20th century, all emerged in 1918-19.


The war has been characterised as a “war of the scientists”. Universities were prominent in the development of tanks, aircraft and submarines; at Imperial College, Martha Whiteley’s work on tear gas earned her the nickname “the woman who makes the Germans weep”. Other research in universities had more benign consequences, including important developments in anaesthesia, antiseptics and the treatment of diseases such as malaria and dysentery.

Martha Whiteley. Via Wikipedia

The war brought an acknowledgement that an emphasis on research would be needed if the economy was to compete effectively. New relationships between universities and industry were forged, stimulated by a new national Committee for Scientific and Industrial Research. Within universities, important issues emerged, including the need to cover the costs of research and to ensure that institutions received due benefit from the commercialisation of research.


Universities continued to teach during the War. Retired staff and senior students were deployed to replace male teachers, and many women took on teaching positions. Universities also collaborated to maintain certain courses. Female students represented a higher proportion of total numbers, but did not increase significantly in absolute terms.

The war also stimulated important developments in some subjects, including the creation of new modern language departments, especially in Russian and Spanish. The need for more students in business studies became clear, and new models of teaching emerged – such as “sandwich courses” to build links with business.

Supporting the war effort

But the impact of the war on the universities went much wider and deeper. University buildings were taken over as hospitals and laboratories were widely used for the manufacture of munitions or other key supplies.

Staff and students worked actively in their communities. Food supply was an example. The University of Leeds organised a train that toured Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland – almost 47,000 people visited to watch demonstrations on horticulture and poultry keeping, and female students worked on farms in the university vacations.

Another important concern was public health. At the University of Manchester, investigations covered various fevers, typhoid and food poisoning. In schools meanwhile, university staff ran classes for children, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The war had devastating consequences. But it also helped to break down barriers between universities and their communities, leading to new relationships and responsibilities. It was also a turning point in the development of the British public university.

Listen to The Anthill podcast on remembering World War I here, or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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