Despite these developments, there was in the first half of the 19th century a continued call for change and reform in the University, which in part reflected the political movements of the country as a whole. The election as Chancellor of Prince Albert the Prince Consort in 1847 is an indication of the strength of the movement for reform, and in 1850 a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the two ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The Commission's report resulted in the promulgation of new Statutes for Cambridge in the Cambridge University Act of 1856. These Statutes have been much revised since their first appearance, but the form of government which they embodied has remained as a framework. The ultimate authority in the University was at first the Senate, the whole body of graduates, together with the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, and doctors.
All important powers of this body came in time to be exercised by those of its members holding official positions in the University or Colleges (the Regent House), who in turn elect a proportion of members of the executive body, the Council. Curriculum and the content of examinations were the responsibility of another elected body, the General Board of the Faculties (which began in 1882), while the Financial Board (now the Finance Committee of the Council) dealt with accounting and the management of the University's estate. Committees or boards concerned with teaching within individual disciplines developed into systematic Faculties during the inter-war years. Each Faculty has its own managing board and degree committee.
The introduction and examination of new studies – building partly upon Cambridge's ancient strength in mathematics – advanced very rapidly after the Royal Commission of 1850 had reported. The natural sciences and moral sciences (now philosophical) Triposes were approved as early as 1851, and before 1900 Triposes in law, history, theology, Indian languages, Semitic (later oriental) languages, medieval and modern (European) languages, and mechanical sciences (later engineering) were all established. To develop these new branches of learning a number of new or remodelled professorships were established by the University and by private benefactors, the earliest being the Disney Professorship of archaeology in 1851.
The numbers of other established teaching posts remained small, and most undergraduate teaching was done by lecturers, appointed and paid by the Colleges, or by private coaches. As numbers of students grew during the last half of the century (matriculations increased from 441 in 1850 to 1,191 in 1910), much accommodation was added to existing Colleges, three entirely new institutions appeared during the century (Downing, Selwyn and St Edmund's), and a number of attempts were made to provide cheap non-collegiate hostels catering for poorer students. Most of these hostels had disappeared before 1900 (the buildings of one, known as Cavendish College, are now occupied by Homerton), but a new non-collegiate society took over their work and later became Fitzwilliam College.
Resources for the study of art, architecture and archaeology had been provided, under the will of Sir Richard Fitzwilliam, by the establishment of the museum which bears his name. An even more extensive series of premises was housed on the old site of the Botanic Garden which moved to Hills Road, leaving free a considerable area behind Free School Lane for the New Museums site. This site came to house the Cavendish Laboratory for experimental physics, as well as departments of medicine, chemistry, zoology, anatomy, and engineering. Meanwhile across the street some of the surplus land originally acquired for Downing College was sold to the University and provided on the Downing Site space for laboratories and museums for botany, geology, agriculture, physiology and archaeology and anthropology, and a law school. The University Library, substantially enlarged on the Old Schools site during the 19th century, outgrew its original home and moved in 1935 to splendid new buildings west of the River Cam with the aid of a very substantial benefaction from the Rockefeller Foundation.
'Extension lectures' in provincial centres were an important feature of University activities in the late-19th century. They were often associated with attempts to provide professional teaching and examinations for girls through the local examinations for schools provided by the University in conjunction with Oxford. Training courses for male graduate teachers began in Cambridge at much the same time, but perhaps the most far-reaching effect of the movement was the establishment at Cambridge of two Colleges for women students (Girton in 1869 and Newnham in 1872). From the first, these Colleges aimed to prepare their students for the Tripos, and the first women were in fact examined in 1882. Attempts to make women full members of the University were repeatedly defeated until 1947. From the 1860s, Colleges began slowly to permit their Fellows to marry. This had a profound influence on Cambridge society and on the topography of the town when houses came to be built to accommodate the new families. A few advanced students appeared in the University, especially in the laboratories, in the early-20th century but postgraduate degrees, chiefly the PhD, made a slow start after their introduction in 1921.
Organised sport came to play a notable part in the life of the Colleges and University after 1851. The boat race between Oxford and Cambridge and the inter-university cricket matches had already begun as early as 1827, and became annual events in 1839. Meanwhile, boat clubs, other athletic organisations and inter-collegiate competitions (Lents and Mays – named after the terms in which they took place – and Cuppers) became a well established feature of undergraduate life. The Proctors continued, in conjunction with College officers, to supervise public order and maintain discipline and it should be noted that until 1970 gowns were worn on the streets after dark by all junior members, and Colleges closed their gates well before midnight.
In the First World War (1914–19), 13,878 members of the University served and 2,470 were killed. Teaching, and the fees it earned, came almost to a stop and severe financial difficulties followed. As a consequence the University first received systematic state support in 1919, conditional upon a further inquiry into its resources and organisation, and a Royal Commission appointed in 1920 recommended that the University (but not the Colleges) should receive an annual grant, and should be reorganised so as to take over responsibility for lectures and practical teaching. The Colleges retained control of individual teaching of their students and this division of responsibility continues today.