Discussions on the founding of a university college in South Wales began in 1879, when a group of Welsh and English MPs urged the government to consider the poor provision of higher and intermediate education in Wales and "the best means of assisting any local effort which may be made for supplying such deficiency."
In October 1881, William Gladstone's government appointed a departmental committee to conduct "an enquiry into the nature and extent of intermediate and higher education in Wales", chaired by Lord Aberdare and consisting of Viscount Emlyn, Reverend Prebendary H. G. Robinson, Henry Richard, John Rhys and Lewis Morris. The Aberdare Report, as it came to be known, took evidence from a wide range of sources and over 250 witnesses and recommended a college each for North Wales and South Wales, the latter to be located in Glamorgan and the former to be the established University College of Wales in Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth University). The committee cited the unique Welsh national identity and noted that many students in Wales could not afford to travel to University in England or Scotland. It advocated a national degree-awarding university for Wales, composed of regional colleges, which should be non-sectarian in nature and exclude the teaching of theology.
After the recommendation was published, Cardiff Corporation sought to secure the location of the college in Cardiff, and on 12 December 1881 formed a University College Committee to aid the matter. There was competition to be the site between Swansea and Cardiff. On 12 March 1883, after arbitration, a decision was made in Cardiff's favour. This was strengthened by the need to consider the interests of Monmouthshire, at that time not legally incorporated into Wales, and the greater sum received by Cardiff in support of the college, through a public appeal that raised £37,000 and a number of private donations, notably from the Lord Bute and Lord Windsor. In April Lord Aberdare was appointed as the College's first president. The possible locations considered included Cardiff Arms Park, Cathedral Road, and Moria Terrace, Roath, before the site of the Old Royal Infirmary buildings on Newport Road was chosen.
The University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire opened on 24 October 1883 with courses in Biology, Chemistry, English, French, German, Greek, History, Latin, Mathematics and Astronomy, Music, Welsh, Logic and Philosophy, and Physics. It was incorporated by Royal Charter the following year, this being the first in Wales to allow the enrolment of women, and specifically forbidding religious tests for entry. John Viriamu Jones was appointed as the University's first Principal at the age of 27. As Cardiff was not an independent university and could not award its own degrees, it prepared its students for examinations of the University of London or for further study at Oxford or Cambridge.
In 1888 the University College at Cardiff and that of North Wales (now Bangor University) proposed to the University College Wales at Aberystwyth joint action to gain a university charter for Wales, modelled on that of Victoria University, a confederation of new universities in Northern England. Such a charter was granted to the new University of Wales in 1893, allowing the colleges to award degrees as members. The Chancellor was set ex officio as the Prince of Wales, and the position of operational head would rotate among heads of the colleges.
In 1885, Aberdare Hall opened as the first hall of residence, allowing women access to the university. This moved to its current site in 1895, but remains a single-sex hall. In 1904 came the appointment of the first female associate professor in the UK, Millicent Mackenzie, who in 1910 became the first female full professor at a fully chartered UK university.
In 1901 Principal Jones persuaded Cardiff Corporation to give the college a five-acre site in Cathays Park (instead of selling it as they would have done otherwise). Soon after, in 1905, work on a new building commenced under the architect W. D. Caröe. Money ran short for the project, however. Although the side-wings were completed in the 1960s, the planned Great Hall has never been built. Caroe sought to combine the charm and elegance of his former (Trinity College, Cambridge) with the picturesque balance of many Oxford colleges. On 14 October 1909 the "New College" building in Cathays Park (now Main Building) was opened in a ceremony involving a procession from the "Old College" in Newport Road.
In 1931, the School of Medicine, founded as part of the college in 1893 along with the Departments of Anatomy, Physiology, Pathology, Pharmacology, was split off to form the Welsh National School of Medicine, which was renamed in 1984 the University of Wales College of Medicine.
In 1972, the institution was renamed University College Cardiff.
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