Founded by charter on 20 April 1880, the Victoria University was a degree-awarding university for colleges based in the north of England. Owens College, Manchester was the founding member, and it was joined by University College, Liverpool in 1883, and Yorkshire College, Leeds in 1887 [University College, Sheffield unsuccessfully applied for membership in 1897].
Until the foundation of the Victoria University, students at these colleges were required to take external degrees of other universities, notably the University of London. This caused inconvenience for students and a loss of influence for the colleges over their curricula. In the 1870s, Owens College had conducted a vigorous campaign for a university to be established in Manchester. This campaign ultimately failed, partly due to the opposition of the ancient English universities, and partly because other northern colleges feared it would monopolise education in the North. However, following protracted negotiations, it was decided to establish a federal university for the North with degree-awarding powers (the federal model was also adopted in different forms by the University of Wales and the University of London).
The Victoria University's charter stipulated that the University was located in Manchester. It shared building facilities with Owens College. The University's system of government comprised a court of governors, a council and a general board of studies, which was responsible for academic policy (degree regulations and courses of study, degree examinations, award of degrees). The general board was arguably the most important body as it undertook the University's core work in devising courses of studies and organizing degree examinations. A convocation looked after the interests of the University's graduates. The chief officers of the University were the chancellor and vice-chancellor, posts which were distributed between representatives of the colleges. The colleges maintained their own systems of government, as well as having representation on the University's bodies.
The Victoria University offered bachelors and masters in arts, sciences and law. In 1883, a supplemental charter allowed the University to award medical degrees. It later instituted specialised degrees including a diploma in public health, and a teacher's diploma. The University's charter authorised it to admit both male and female students to its courses and degrees, and the University was an important stimulus to co-education.
The University was active in other areas; it was much involved in school leaving examinations in the region, as a way of ensuring that its students were of sufficient academic capability when they joined. University representatives were governors of many Northern secondary schools. The University was also responsible for extra-mural education lectures in parts of the region.
By the early twentieth century, the federal arrangements had become increasingly inflexible, and the colleges again raised the issue of independence, especially following the award of a charter to the University of Birmingham in 1900. Opposition to independence was largely concentrated in Yorkshire College, which was less financially secure, and from some alumni, who feared for the status of their degrees if the federal University disappeared. The proponents of change petitioned the Privy Council for independent universities, and in February 1903, the Council recommended that a university of Liverpool be established, and that the Victoria University be reconstituted as an independent University of Manchester (one reason for its official title being the Victoria University of Manchester). These proposals were enacted in 1903, with Yorkshire College becoming independent as the University of Leeds in 1904.
Chancellors of the Victoria University 1880-1903
- 1880-1891 William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire
- 1891-1907 John Poyntz, 5th Earl Spencer.
Vice-chancellors of the Victoria University 1880-1903
- 1880-1887 J G Greenwood
- 1887-1891 A W Ward
- 1891-1895 Gerald Rendall
- 1895-1897 A W Ward
- 1897-1901 Nathan Bodington
- 1901-1903 Alfred Hopkinson.