Every once in awhile I get asked: how come Canadians call the “universities” but Americans call them “colleges” and I had to confess that I really didn’t know beyond “it has something to do with the original American institutions being modelled on English universities and the Canadian ones on Scottish ones”. But over Xmas, I did some reading and found the actual answer. I think.
Anyways, here’s my understanding: back in the 13th century, when the first two real European universities (Bologna and Paris) were getting started, there were three institutions you needed to think about: there was universitas, the collegio and the stadium generale. The term “universitas” did not at the time have a meaning related to education: it was actually just a Roman term which meant “a group of people in the same line of work”. You could have a universitas of bakers, or smiths, or whatever. The term was functionally equivalent to “a guild” or “a corporation”.
The huge distinction between Bologna and Paris was that in Italy, students were being regrouped under the term of “universitas”, whereas in France it was masters (i.e. professors). It was a completely different set of interests that were being protected. In Bologna –each “nation” of students (Romans, Tuscans, Lombarads and “everybody else”) felt it needed its own “guild” to obtain rights (and these were all out-of-towners – Bolognese students didn’t need their own universitas since as citizens they would already have had rights that the out-of-town students needed guilds to obtain). The job of these guilds were three-fold: set down rules for how masters were to teach, haggle with masters over prices for services and set prices and rules for dealing with Bolognese landlords who let rooms to students. It’s actually helpful if you think of the Bolognese “universitas” as being more like student unions.
But note here that what the Bolgnese universitas did not do was set academic standards or hand out degrees. That was the job of the studium generale, which was basically the masters acting together to figure out whether or not to award someone a degree. In Paris, for a variety of mainly anti-competitive reasons, it was the masters who formed the guild and became known as “the university”. It was thus here that the term stadium generale and universitas took on an overlapping meaning since they were both run by masters.
The other major difference between Bologna and Paris was living arrangements. In Bologna, the student “universitas” held a kind of monopsony power vis-à-vis local landlords, and so students could find their own digs at reasonable cost. In Paris, on the other hand, this didn’t hold: since a lot of the arts and theology students at Paris students were probably poorer than those Bologna law students, there was a need for cheap accommodation. So, soon after the university was set up, individuals and religious leaders began setting up “colleges” – that is, dormitories – for students. At that point, studium generales and universities alike lacked actual physical premises. Teaching took place in masters houses or in rented premises. In Paris, the arrival of colleges meant there were now physical establishments full of students in which masters could teach. And so teaching began to physically move into the colleges.
One of the interesting things about medieval universities is the way they spread, more or less like ant colonies. They would regularly “disperse”, with groups of masters travelling from the mother university to another city and replicating that institution’s constitutional form. So, southern Europe and Scotland mostly got (Bologna-like) student universities while France, Germany and England mostly got (Paris-like) “master universities”. The college aspect of the Paris system did not really take in Germany or France and it even largely withered away in Paris (though the college set up by the theologian Robert de Sorbon eventually gave its name to part of the university itself). But it really took off in Oxford, where the colleges eventually became the locus of all teaching and in a sense became more important than the university itself.
Fast forward a few hundred years into the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries and academic colonies start popping up on our side of the Atlantic. The American schools tended to see their roots in England (John Harvard was a Cambridge man), while Canadian institutions tended to imitate Scottish ones. That is to say, American institutions are Paris/Oxford descendants which believed teaching had to occur in “colleges” which were residential, while Canadian ones – like their Scottish and Italian ancestors – were not particularly fussed about the residential aspect and styled themselves “universities”. Where it gets a bit tricky is that Canada wasn’t wholly Scottish – places with Anglican roots like Bishop’s or the University of Toronto were formed more on a college model, and so look a bit more Oxford/American.
Now, eventually, American institutions began to use the term university (I am fairly certain it had to do with the arrival of graduate education from Germany in the late 19th century), but in the vernacular the term “college” survived. It even got translated to “junior” colleges, which were created to provide preparatory and/or vocational education early in the 20th century. These eventually became known as “community colleges”, and as vocational post-secondary education spread across Canada in the 1960s, we mostly picked up that nomenclature too. This left us with a (mostly) Bologna-ish nomenclature for universities and a (mostly) Oxford/Paris via America nomenclature for vocational education.
And with that: buongiorno a tutti.