George Chrystal and Scottish University Reforms.

In 1876 a Royal Commission, with Lord President Inglis as chairman, was appointed to make recommendations for the universities of Scotland. The commission issued its report in 1878, which was introduced into parliament in 1883, 1884, 1885, 1887, 1888, and 1889. It was not until the last mentioned year that it became law as the Universities (Scotland) Act, 1889.

The Universities (Scotland) Act of 1858 had proposed a fairly rigid structure for the M.A. degree in Scotland with a set course consisting of seven compulsory subjects. The 1878 Royal Commission report proposed that there be a set first year course for the M.A. and then a student be allowed to either follow the traditional seven subjects course or to study one of five areas: Literature and philology; Philosophy; Law and history; Mathematical science; or Natural science.

The report was eagerly and anxiously discussed in academic circles and had a prominent place in the thoughts of Chrystal. He spoke on the topic in detail in his first promoter's address of 1885, where he says [1]:-

Although I have never hitherto taken any part in the public discussion of this matter, I have by no means been an indifferent spectator. ... I read every publication, good and bad, bearing on the subject which has come within my notice during the last ten years, the last of these being the Italian university bill.

Chrystal then posed what he considered were the main questions facing higher education, and gave his opinions on these [1]:-

Higher education is an expensive commodity, the furnishing of which involves most important practical questions regarding men and money. Who are the men that are to receive it ? Where are the men to come from who are to give it ? How is the money to be provided to maintain the givers of it, and to equip them with the necessary but costly apparatus ? ... The higher education in the strictest sense of the word must always be the possession of a very few, and yet the proposition that the avenues to it should be open to every one, however poor, who has shown special fitness to receive it, is to my mind so obvious, and is moreover so universally accepted in Scotland, that it would be idle to discuss it here. This proposition carries with it of course the admission that higher education must be supported to a large extent by the community at large, and can never be treated as a merely commercial article, subject to ordinary laws of supply and demand.

The Universities (Scotland) Act, 1889 largely remodelled the constitution of the universities, and instituted a new administrative body, namely the Scottish universities committee of the privy council, to which all new ordinances and all petitions from or concerning the universities were to be referred. It appointed an executive commission under Lord Kinnear as chairman, and gave the commissioners powers to regulate the course of study for any degree; the manner of teaching; the length of session; the manner of examination; the granting of degrees; the institution of an examination either on entering the university, or as a preliminary condition of entering on the course of study for a degree in any faculty, or of both such examinations; and the admission of women to instruction and graduation in one or more faculties.

Chrystal, however, was not satisfied with the appointment of the commission [1]:-

No one in his senses expects that an executive commission will be able to sit down and draw up a scheme that will at once meet all our difficulties for all time coming. Such an idea belongs to the childhood of an educational reformer. What the commission will in all probability do - what they certainly ought to do - is to put elasticity and, if need be, joints into the cast-iron framework of our university constitution, which will enable us gradually, as men and money can be found, to adapt ourselves to the existing want of our time.

Cremona, who was a friend of Chrystal's, had presented an education bill to the Italian Senate and Signor Coppino, the new Italian Minister of Public Education, had expressed these views on it (quoted from [1] where Chrystal says they follow his own thinking):-:

The state should concede the most ample scientific-didactic freedom to the universities, meaning thereby the totality of university professors, who could be called to propose in new regulations or statutes of the faculties compiled by a commission elected by and common to all universities those parts of the scholastic regime which are not purely administrative, but are founded on scientific and technical criteria. Thus that part of the matter which by its nature ought to follow the progress of science and the movement of ideas would be determined by statutes made by experts and subjected to periodical revision at shorter intervals; while those parts should be determined by law which do not depend on scientific opinion, and which may without detriment remain unchanged for such a longer period of time as the life of an organic law regarding public instruction is wont to be.

As a result of the commission of 1889 there were fundamental changes in the Scottish university system. The report presented an approach which was not so radical that it might prove unacceptable to the Scottish people. The failure of a previous report had shown the commissioners the advisability of preserving some moderation in dealing with the Scots and so their recommendations proposed an original and ingenious compromise. The number of subjects for an M.A. in Arts was kept at seven, but options were introduced in choosing the seven subjects. In June 1892 a University Preliminary Examination was specified. The Ordinary M.A. degree would be based on four departments: Language and literature; Mental philosophy; Science; and Law. For an hounours degree in Arts, eight departments were specified.

Chrystal expresses his views about mathematics and new Arts ordinance in detail in his promoter's address of 1892 [2]:-

Regarding the general principle of the ordinance it would hardly be profitable to speak at length, as it has been tacitly agreed to give it a trial. I cannot, however, refrain from saying that after mature consideration I have come to think that it is of doubtful educational soundness. ... The commissioners are treating the representations made to them in a conciliatory spirit, and I hope a remedy will be provided which, if it does not effect all that some of us would desire, will yet prevent immediate disaster, and gives us time to devise a better plan after some years' experience of the new conditions. ... The University of Edinburgh has been famous as a school of mathematics and natural philosophy ever since the Gregorys, in the latter part of seventeenth century, brought into its teaching the spirit and methods of Newton. David Gregory, afterwards Savilian Professor in Oxford, was indeed a favourite follower, distinguished by Newton himself; and it was in his lecture room in the University of Edinburgh that the doctrines of the "Principia" were first publicly taught in Great Britain. Ever since then the position of natural philosophy as an advanced subject, to which pure mathematics is in part ancillary, has been fixed in the Scottish universities.

Chrystal then remarks that in the draft ordinance for Arts degrees, while higher standards had been imposed on Latin and Greek as graduation subjects, this was not the case for mathematics. This omission was thought to be a mere accident but everyone was surprised when it was found in the final ordinance that mathematics and natural philosophy were placed as compulsory alternatives, with the higher standard of entrance for mathematics and the lower for natural philosophy. It was clear that natural philosophy was intended to provide an escape route for those who could not reach the higher standard in mathematics on entering the university.

Chrystal explains his own position in these words [2]:-

Ever since I became convinced that a majority of educated Scotsmen desired to break down the old curriculum of seven subjects, my watchword has been "Greater freedom and higher standards". It is obvious that in any subject which is generally compulsory the standards cannot be high. I was never very anxious that all Arts students, should take either mathematics or natural philosophy; but I have all along striven to secure, so far as possible, that those who do take these subjects should be well prepared to receive them. To meet the difficulty of those who desired to have no mathematics, I proposed that an alternative should be given of a physical or natural science with practical or laboratory work; that mathematics should be entered on the higher standard, and that natural philosophy should remain as Newton made it and Gregory expounded it. The Commissioners adopted the part of my proposal relating to entrance on mathematics; but made their action nugatory by ignoring the rest of it, although they had fully carried out the principle in the science ordinance.

Chrystal suggested that all this had come about because of a lack of proper consultation and representation on the part of commissioners. Departments of mathematics were unfortunate in the way the ordinances were set up: firstly mathematics was practically dropped from the science degree, secondly honours mathematicians did not get full justice as compared with those studying classics. Mathematicians were obliged to take classics yet no classical honours student was required to take a mathematical subject. Chrystal, however, welcomed women into Arts classes and said [2]:-

... several women were distinguished for humanistic culture during the early days of the revival of classical learning and from Hypatia down to Madame Sophie Kovalevskaya, who died recently, women have from time to time distinguished themselves as mathematicians.

The administrative work involved in bringing all the changes suggested by the ordinances into effect required much time, labour, and executive capacity; and Chrystal, having been appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts in Edinburgh on the resignation of Campbell Fraser in 1891, had a formidable task ahead. The work of carrying out all these reforms in Edinburgh fell very largely on the new Dean, and using his experience and with hard work he accomplished the job successfully.

In view of the rapid developments that were taking place and many other reasons already pointed out by Chrystal, it did not take long before some of the fundamental innovations made by the commissioners required revision. In 1907, the Edinburgh University court decided to exercise the powers conferred upon it by the 1889 Act of framing its own regulations for the degree of M.A, and formulated a very important new ordinance, called Edinburgh Ordinance No.11, giving power to establish a three term session and to overhaul completely the scheme for graduation in Arts. The ordinance was passed on 5th of May 1908, but did not become effective until the beginning of session 1909-10, the details having had to be worked out in the interval through the Senatus.

Chrystal, as Dean Faculty of Arts, again shouldered the main burden of framing the new regulations and of steering them through various committes after the main principles had been agreed on. In his promoter's address of 10th of April 1908, Chrystal refers to these changes in the following words [3]:-

The realisation of their consequences will be a matter of time and no little labour for the university staff, and will ultimately make heavy demands on university resources. I am keenly interested in the developments that lie before us, but I must confess that I shrink from the labour that they will involve. Yet the whole of my career has been a turmoil of university reform, beginning in Cambridge, and it may as well end as it began, if it be decreed that it is to continue any longer.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
(based on part of Chapter 3 of a University of St Andrews doctoral dissertation by Mohammad Yousuf submitted January 1990.)


  1. G Chrystal, Promoter's Address to Arts Graduates of Edinburgh University (1885).

  2. G Chrystal, Promoter's Address to Arts Graduates of Edinburgh University (1892).

  3. G Chrystal, Promoter's Address to Arts Graduates of Edinburgh University (1908).

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