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The first ever demand for higher education in Madras Presidency was voiced forth in a Public Address to The Right Honourable Lord John Elphinstone G.C.H., Governor of Madras signed by 70,000 Native Inhabitants when the Governor in Council was contemplating "some effective and liberal measures for the establishment of an improved system of national education". This public petition which was presented by the then Advocate General Mr. George Norton on 11.11.1839 pressed the need for an English College in the Madras city. Pursuant to this, Lord Elphinstone evolved a plan for the establishment of a Central Collegiate Institution or a 'University'. This University had twin Departments (1) High School for the cultivation of English literature, regional language, philosophy and science, (2) College providing instruction in the higher branches of literature, philosophy and science.

The University Board was constituted in January 1840 with Mr. George Norton as its President. This was the precursor of the present Presidency College, Chennai. However, a systematic educational policy for India was formulated only after 14 years by the historic despatch of 1854 (Sir Charles Wood's Education Dispatch), which pointed out the rationale for "creating a properly articulated system of education from the primary school to the University". The Dispatch recommended the establishment in the Universities of Professorships "for the purposes of the delivery of lectures in various branches of learning including vernacular as well as classical languages". As a sequel, the University of Madras, organized on the model of London University, was incorporated on 5 September 1857 by an Act of the Legislative Council of India.

The University of Madras progressed and expanded throughout the nineteenth century to span the whole of South India and subsequently gave birth to and nourished most of the Universities viz., Mysore University (1916), Osmania University (1918), Andhra University (1926), Annamalai University (1929), Travancore University (1937) presently Kerala University, Sri Venkateswara University (1954), Madurai Kamaraj University (1966), Bharathidasan University (1982), Bharathiar University (1982), Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (1971), Anna University (1978), Tamil University (1981), Mother Teresa University (1984), Tamil Nadu Dr.M.G.R.Medical University (1989), Tamil Nadu Veterinary Sciences University (1990), Periyar University (1997) and the Tamil Nadu Dr.Ambedkar Law University (1997). The National Assessment and Accreditation Council has conferred the "Five star Status" to the University of Madras. The University of Madras has been given the status of "University with Potential for Excellence" by the University Grants Commission (UGC).

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