Studying for Freedom – University of London wartime education

In the last couple of months the inspiring story about the Kenyan inmate Pete Ouko who got a University of London law diploma from behind bars went around the world, showcasing how truly life-changing education can be. Making education accessible for those, who cannot or chose not to undertake studies in the UK, but are nevertheless able to receive a prestigious and internationally recognised qualification, has become more important than ever.

Already during the World Wars, the University of London played a crucial role in wartime education: It enabled people to continue their studies and pass exams while serving in the Armed Forces, at a time when they were being uprooted and moved from place to place and, more exceptionally whilst serving as internees and prisoners of war with little hope of escape. At Ruhleben Internment Camp in Berlin/Germany, where 5,500 male civilians were interned during the First World War, Arthur Clow Ford OBE was amongst the first to recognise that education was one of the ways to improve camp life. He was the active force behind the establishment of the Ruhleben school which was set-up as early as January 1915 and eventually had some 1,500 students. Ford commented: “When I started my first course of lectures on Shakespeare I announced that I proposed to lecture twice a week and that the course would take about 120 lectures. This was greeted with howl of derision. But of course I finished these, gave a similar course on Milton and was well started on a third on George Bernard Shaw before the end came.”


Honorary war degrees logbook. Candidates had to pay a fee of £5, unless exempted.

© University of London Archives

In the period from April 1942 to June 1945, exam papers were sent out to c. 17,600 candidates in 88 camps. Some 10,104 candidates eventually took exams, ultimately paving the way for a life after the war. Education in the prisoner of war camps was much more feasible in the Second World War than in 1914-18, thanks mainly to the third Geneva Convention, which established comprehensive rules for the treatment of prisoners of war. Article 38 laid down that “detaining powers must encourage educational pursuits and provide adequate facilities”, while article 72 decreed that prisoners must be allowed to receive educational materials, including books, scientific equipment, exams, musical instruments and other materials that would allow them to study. The anonymous writer of the 1941/42 report on the Advisory Service for External Students took the opportunity to reflect on the effects of war on the University of London. “It needed the stress of these war years to make clear how flexible and adaptable the External side of the University actually is”, he wrote. The prisoners of war who had studied and gained qualifications in the camps were particularly welcome home in 1945 because the needs of ‘total war’ had prevented the training of young people in Britain and thinned the numbers of all ages in every lines of work. The newly qualified linguists, architects, farmers, lawyers and accountants from the camps were urgently needed at home.

It was not only British prisoners of war who studied in camps in Germany and in France, Bulgaria, Denmark and Hungary. In September 1944 and January 1946 the University of London was contacted about accepting registration respectively from German and Italian prisoners of war based in Britain.

The University of London’s response to both World Wars, and particularly the work of the students, academic staff and administrators of the distance learning programmes, does appear to epitomise the ‘wartime spirit’ cultivated in 1940s Britain: combining co-operation, resourcefulness and adaptability with the maintenance of high standards through hard work and self-discipline.


Nearly all exam papers sent to prisoners of war in the Second World War were co-ordinated by the University of London External office.

© Museum of the Order of St John London

The University of London boasts a remarkable track record in the area of access to University level education for the incarcerated, a heritage that is embraced in its access mission. To the present day University of London degree programmes can be accessed by prisoners in some countries allowing for new opportunities or a fresh perspective of the world, the most famous example being Nelson Mandela who studied for a law degree whilst imprisoned on Robben Island.

In collaboration with the African Prisons Project (APP), a registered London-based charity, founded to improve the welfare, health and education of detainees in Kenya and Uganda, the University of London awards scholarships to support undergraduate law studies. The initiative is not only part of a range of development work in Sub-Saharan Africa but also in keeping with the University of London’s founding principle of providing education for all, irrespective of race, creed or political belief. Since 2011 40 students have been accepted for Diplomas in the Common Law and LLB degree studies, 21 for the 2015/16 term alone. One of the successful students of the programme is Pete Ouko.