A brief history

The foundation of the University, 1836

University Grant of Arms
Grant of Arms 1838

The University of London was founded by Royal Charter on 28 November 1836 and is the third oldest university in England.

The two founding Colleges of the University, UCL (founded 1826) and King’s College London (founded 1829), both predate the University, as do many other of the University’s constituent institutions. For example, St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School (now part of Queen Mary) and St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School (now part of King’s College London) both have twelfth-century origins.

The University of London was initially established to act as an examining body for its Colleges and other ‘approved institutions’. It acted solely in this capacity until 1858.

The University awarded its first degrees back in 1839 to 29 students. Today more than 22,000 students studying at its 18 prestigious Colleges and through its distance learning programme in 180 countries receive University of London degrees each year.

Try out a selection of degree questions from past decades.

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Expansion: the birth of distance learning and the establishment of the 'Teaching University'

In 1858, the University opened its degrees to any (male) student, regardless of their location.

Today over 54,000 students in 180 countries study for a University of London degree through the University of London International Programmes .

Towards the end of the 19th century, the University became more than just an examining body and was established as a federal ‘Teaching University’. The University of London Act was passed in 1898, after which the University monitored course content and academic quality in the Colleges through centrally-located faculties and Boards of Studies.

The University’s Statutes distinguished between the examination ‘Internal’ students – those drawn from the Colleges, or ‘Schools’ of the University – and ‘External’ students.

The University of London has been a pioneering force in higher education from its early years. It introduced many new subjects into university education, including modern languages and laboratory science. Its degrees have always been awarded regardless of race, creed or political belief.

In 1878 London became the first university in the UK to admit women to its degrees. In 1880, four women passed the BA examination and in 1881 two women obtained a BSc. By 1895, over 10 per cent of the graduates were women and by 1900 the proportion had increased to 30 per cent.

By 1908, the University of London had over 4000 registered students, exceeding the universities of both Oxford and Cambridge, becoming the largest university in the UK and the fifth largest in the world.

 

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The building of the Senate House

In its first century of existence the University moved between a succession of temporary homes, each of which it quickly outgrew.

The decision was finally taken to provide what had become the world’s largest University with a purpose-built, permanent home.  A large parcel of land located behind the British Museum in the central London district of Bloomsbury was purchased from the Duke of Bedford’s estate.

The architect Charles Holden, who designed many of London’s Underground stations, was appointed in February 1931 and construction work began in 1932. On 26 June 1933, King George V laid the foundation stone and the building was occupied in 1936. At 209 feet, it was the tallest secular building in the capital.

In 2011 Senate House celebrated its 75th anniversary. Find out more fascinating facts about this London landmark by taking our short ‘true or false’ quiz.

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From the Second World War to the present day

By the time war broke out in September 1939, the University had 14,000 registered students. The Colleges and their students were forced into exile in other parts of the UK and Senate House was taken over by the Ministry of Information – the roof becoming a valuable observation point for the Royal Observatory Corp.

By 1944, the Colleges began to return to London and exams again took place in the capital. The Principal of the University reported that the exams were carried out ‘without casualties, other than those normally caused by these exacting but essential tests’.

In 1948, Lillian Penson was elected as the University’s 31st Vice-Chancellor, the first women to hold this post in a Commonwealth University.

During the 1960s and 1970s the number of students going to university in the UK expanded enormously. In line with this, the total number of internal students at the University of London doubled to almost 54,000 by 1981.

In 1981 Princess Anne, The Princess Royal succeeded the Queen Mother as the University’s 10th Chancellor.

In the 1990s, many of the University’s central responsibilities were devolved to the Colleges. The Funding Council also began to fund the Colleges directly.

The University continues to grow and evolve to reflect the changing times. In 2008 it introduced a streamlined, transparent and flexible system of governance headed by a Board of Trustees with a lay majority.

Today – as it has been throughout its long history – the University is a family of world-class institutions, collectively upholding its international reputation of academic distinction in teaching and research.

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Archives

Senate House Library holds the University archives , which provide a detailed history of the University from its foundation. An online catalogue  is available.

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Publications

For further information about the history of the University of London, see Negley Harte, The University of London, 1836-1986 (The Athlone Press Ltd, London, 1986).

For the history of the building of Senate House, see Richard Simpson, The University of London’s Senate House: Charles Holden, Classicism and Modernity (University of London Press, London, 2005).

For further information about Academic Dress, see Philip Goff, University of London Academic Dress (University of London Press, 1999).

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