September 26th marks 140 years of Continuing Education at Oxford

This autumn – 26 September 2018 to be exact – marks 140 years since the first Oxford Continuing Education lecture, which took place in a room in a school in Birmingham.

Most people are surprised to learn that part-time students studying at Oxford Continuing Education outnumber full-time undergraduates at the University of Oxford - by a considerable margin. And even more are interested to hear that our student ranks include such notables as Vera Brittain, Harper Lee and Roger Bannister.

The history of Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education is the story of a handful of dedicated Oxford academics who felt that widening access to higher education was essential to the nation’s welfare and future; it’s also the account of ordinary working citizens from across the nation collaborating with Oxford to design a unique format of education that served their needs.


The idea of delivering Oxford University lectures to adult learners in other towns and cities was suggested before 1850, but it was only with the burgeoning of railway travel that it could become a feasible reality. And so the first Oxford Extension Lecture took place at King Edward VI School in 1878; the topic: ‘The History of England in the Seventeenth Century’. The lecturer was Reverend Arthur Johnson, a plain-speaking, athletic Oxford University historian.

‘Extension Lectures’ sprang up in more than 100 towns and cities across England, and in 1892, what was to become Continuing Education got an office in the Oxford's Examination Schools.

Bringing tertiary education to women and working-class learners

Women were largely excluded from universities at the time these lectures got off the ground, yet it was estimated that two thirds of those who attended the extension lectures were female. For many women it was almost their only chance of education beyond school.

The other early advance in Continuing Education’s history was the birth of the summer school – or ‘Summer Meeting’, at which students from the different extension centres met for face-to-face tuition at Oxford. The first, at Balliol College in 1888, was a great success. Dedicated working-class students came to Oxford for a Summer Meeting for their annual holiday, and by the start of the 20th century, the focus on access to an Oxford education for working-class learners was growing.

It was the students themselves who asked for more rigour in their studies (extension lectures being a largely passive form for learning) and in response, tutorial classes began in 1908. Course-groups of students met regularly over two years or more to do advanced academic work, formally examined. 

Coming home to Rewley House

In 1924, an ‘extramural department’ was formally founded at Oxford, and in 1927, the University bought Rewley House – a former convent school - on Wellington Square, which continues to be the base for Continuing Education today.

Wellington Square was an ideal location – with its many little boarding houses and hotels, it had long accommodated students coming to the city for Summer Meetings. The Department's footprint on the square was expanded in the 1960s, with the addition of several adjoining townhouses to accommodate students on residential courses.

Fast-forwarding to the late 20th century history of the Department, there was ‘tremendous growth from the 1970s onwards,’ says the former Director of Continuing Education, Geoffrey Thomas. In the 1980s, Rewley House expanded again – gaining its sunken courtyard garden, library, lecture theatre, dining room and common room. A significant advance came in the early 1990s, when the Department was endowed with the ability to offer part-time Oxford degree programmes. 

In the mid-1990s we expanded into the digital world: our Technology-Assisted Online Learning (TALL) team was formed to develop online courses, which allowed far more international students to join the Department. 


Continuing Education has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding 140 years ago. Today, there are more than 17K studentsstudying part-time programmes at the Department- far more than the number of full-time undergraduates at the University.  They are highly international, coming from more than 120 countries worldwide.

Department's mission has remained unchanged since the very beginning: to extend Oxford teaching to the wider community. Today we are able to reach much further than our 19th-century founders could have imagined.

One more thing remains unchanged in 140 years. According to Jonathan Michie, our current Director, ‘what is special about the Department is our students.'

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Published 11 September 2018