It is safe to say that we are all more or less familiar with the convoluted and often enervating process of university applications. Draft upon drafts of personal statements, online forms and indecipherable acronyms are only some of the challenges faced by the modern student wishing to enter higher education. When did accessing university become so complex?
With an illiteracy rate of approximately 90% during the 16th century, the entrance to university was not even an option for the majority of the population. Those who continued their education beyond their teenage years were usually sons of aristocratic families or very wealthy tradesmen who viewed education as another form of establishing their status. At this time, education was mainly focused on linguistics and the study of Ancient Greek and Roman texts such as well as rhetoric, logic and basic arithmetic. Very apt students from grammar schools would apply to Oxford or Cambridge where they would be taught mostly by members of the ecclesiastical community after undergoing an examination on Latin and Greek grammar. Despite the increased secularisation of some countries during the Enlightenment, religion continued to be an essential part of the institutions. The university of Halle was the fist European university to shy away from religious dogmatism after it was established by the Lutherans in 1694.
The number of students was quite small, making it unnecessary to undergo a complex admission process; however, high matriculation fees had already been established in order to ensure that those who attended the institutions were only people of the highest status. Seasonal gifts to tutors in money or goods were also expected. It is estimated that the cost of studying at Oxford at the time would be equivalent to £8. To put this into context, the annual salary of a labourer would be around £2. Early universities did have some academic requirements but relied more on "references" from previous tutors and monetary encouragement.
The established precepts for access to higher education continued to be approximately the same until the start of the 19th century when calls for the reform of the educational system as a whole began to rise from the increasingly industrialised European nations. In the UK, the election of Prince Albert (Prince consort and husband to Queen Victoria) as Chancellor prompted a series of reforms which brought universities closer to what we experience now. In 1850 a Royal Commission was appointed in order to enquire on the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, leading eventually to the creation of frameworks such as the Cambridge University Act. From 1878 academic halls were established for women who had to provide more than sufficient references to prove their ability in the subject, the decision to be accepted in the course, however, was up to specific professors which lead to many only attending certain classes rather than pursuing a degree.
The First World War caused a massive decrease in the numbers of students in higher education institutions across Europe. The drafting of hundreds of thousands of young men caused universities to enter severe economic problems, some of them like Oxford, Cambridge and Durham being forced to accept government funding. This crisis lead to the requisites to enter the university decreasing considerably with less rigorous selection processes for those who stayed at home. After 1945, the demand for higher eduction increased massively with new universities opening throughout the UK such as Nottingham (1948). The funding of UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) in 1992 completely changed the way in which the undergraduate admissions were handled. Only one application forwarded by UCAS is necessary with students writing a personal statement and submitting their predicted grades to five universities of their choice.
In conclusion, the access to university has changed dramatically over the years due to a variety of factors such as increase in population and conflict. The most significant changes, however, were seen by the introduction of women into higher education and the availability of the internet. These developments finally lead to the tortuous process met with fear and excitement by students worldwide as they enter their adult life and leave the comfortable environment of their school.