150 today! Humanists UK celebrates the law that abolished religious discrimination in universities

The University Tests Act, which ended religious discrimination in admissions and employment at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham is 150 years old today.

The Act marked an important step in advancing freedom of religion or belief in the UK. But a century and a half later, state-funded schools are still permitted to select staff and pupils on religious grounds. Humanists UK is calling for these ‘discriminatory practices’ to end.

The Act, which became law on 16 June 1871, abolished religious ‘tests’ for all subjects apart from divinity. It meant the universities were no longer allowed to force prospective members of staff or students to ‘subscribe to any article or formulary of faith’ as well as ‘to make any declaration or take any oath respecting…religious belief’. It also stopped the universities from requiring staff or students to ‘conform to any religious observance, or to attend or abstain from attending any form of public worship, or to belong to any specified church, sect, or denomination’. This allowed non-Christians, non-conformist Christians, and Roman Catholics to take up roles such as professorships and fellowships at the three universities for the first time. Previously, these roles had only been available to members of the Church of England.

Before the 1871 Act, the University of Oxford Act 1854 had removed religious tests for undergraduate degrees and the Cambridge University Act 1856 had abolished them for degrees in Arts, Law, Music, and Medicine. But there were still restrictions on higher degrees and to become a member of the governing body of the university (known as the Senate). The Act abolished these requirements, saying the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham ‘should be rendered freely accessible to the nation.’

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:

‘150 years ago the Government recognised that educational opportunity and employment shouldn’t be restricted on the basis of faith. This happened at a time when universities didn’t regularly receive state funding and marked a hugely important step in advancing the freedom of religion or belief.

‘The fact that a century and a half later publicly funded schools are still permitted to select pupils and teachers on religious grounds highlights just how archaic these discriminatory practices really are. We call on the governments of all the nations of the UK to abolish the exemptions to equality law that continue to allow religious tests in  admissions and employment and make our schools open to people regardless of religion, just as our universities have been for 150 years.’