History of the University of London
The University of London is unlike many other universities. Our commitment to widening access has shaped our history, from our foundation in 1836 to the present day.
The University of London was founded in 1836 to promote access to higher education. We pioneered distance learning across the globe. We were the first University in the world to admit students regardless of their gender, race or religion.
In 1878 we were the first UK university to award degrees to women. Improving access and equality of opportunity remains our mission to this day.
‘The People’s University’
The University of London was established by Royal Charter in 1836 for the public benefit and is recognised globally. Throughout our long history, the University has offered access to a wide range of academic opportunities. As a world leader in higher education, the University has pioneered change in the sector.
Established as a secular alternative to Oxford and Cambridge, the only two other English universities at the time, we became the first to explicitly exclude religious qualification as an entry requirement. We were the first university to admit students regardless of their gender, race or religion, the first to admit women to degree programmes and, in 1865, the first to give students the opportunity to study wherever they are, providing access to higher education across the globe.
For almost 200 years, we have improved the lives of millions of people around the world through our unique approach to education. In 1858, Charles Dickens’ magazine, All the Year Round, coined the term 'The People’s University', which would “extend her hand even to the young shoemaker who studies in his garret.”
We were also the first University to give external students the opportunity to continue to earn a living while studying, and to study privately and take exams without coming to London.
Since then we have expanded and modernised, becoming a pioneering institution that was the first to make higher education available to women and those unable to pursue traditional forms of study.
1836 Foundation of University of London as a Chartered University
The University was established by royal charter in 1836, as a degree-awarding examination board for students holding certificates from University College London and King's College London.
The birthplace of long distance learning
- The University of London Archives contains printed versions of the charters [PDF]
In 1858 we became the birthplace of long distance learning, allowing students to study for degrees outside of London, spreading higher education across the globe. We also introduced many new subjects into university education, including modern languages and laboratory science.
We were the first to give external students the opportunity to continue to earn a living while studying, and to study privately and take exams without coming to London. Since these beginnings, we have continued to accrue new member institutions, vastly expanding our membership and academic catalogue.
Each year, our ‘Foundation Day’ celebrates the anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone and since 1903 honorary degrees have been bestowed to, among others, Prince of Wales and Winston Churchill.
The University during the war
The University had great impact for those who were serving during the First and Second World Wars in the Armed Forces or had been prisoners of war. Many continued studying and passed exams, ultimately paving the way for a life after the wars. To the present day our degree programmes can be accessed by prisoners in some countries, allowing for new opportunities or a fresh perspective of the world.
- 1836 The University of London is incorporated by Royal Charter
- 1858 The University of London pioneers long distance learning by allowing students to study for degrees outside of London
- 1859 University of London examinations are first held outside London, in Liverpool and Manchester
- 1865 The University of London’s first overseas examinations are held at Royal College, Mauritius
- 1868 Women are first admitted to sit the ‘special examination’ at the University of London, marking the first time that women could access university education in the UK
- 1873 The first University of London students to obtain degrees after taking examinations overseas graduate in Mauritius
- 1878 The University of London becomes the first UK university to open full degrees for women
- 1894 Edith Williams establishes the Franco-English Guild, now known as the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP)
- 1906 University of London graduate Louise Creighton begins to campaign for women’s suffrage in the UK
- 1916 T.S. Eliot becomes a tutor on the University of London’s Extension Programme
- 1932 King George V lays the foundation stone of Senate House, which was completed over a period of five years
- 1939 Senate House is taken over by the Ministry of Information during World War II
- 1942 University of London examinations are first held in German prisoner of war camps. The University coordinated arrangements for over 6,000 papers over the next three years
- 1948 Lillian Penson (BBK, QMUL, RHUL, UCL) is appointed as the first woman Vice-Chancellor of the University of London
- 1955 Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother becomes Chancellor of the University of London
- 1963 Nelson Mandela passes University of London Intermediate examinations as an External student while in prison awaiting trial
- 1970 The University of Zimbabwe is the last of seven non-UK institutions to become an independent university after a period of ‘special relation’ with the University of London
- 1981 HRH The Princess Royal becomes Chancellor of the University of London
- 1987 Contracts between the University of London and individual colleges are signed, establishing the concept of the ‘Lead College’
- 2001 The University of London’s Online Library is launched
- 2005 The University of London Centre for Distance Education is established
- 2013 The University of London International Programmes launches its first massive open online course (MOOC) programme on the Coursera platform
- 2019 Registrations open for the University of London’s fully online BSc Computer Science programmes
- 2021 The University of London celebrates HRH The Princess Royal’s 40th anniversary as Chancellor