Skip to main content

Professor Wendy Thomson welcomes UUK to the iconic home of the University of London


Read the Vice-Chancellor’s speech to UUK on the history of the University of London and becoming the largest UK provider of international distance education... 

On Thursday 3 March 2022, the University of London hosted a dinner for Universities UK Members. Vice-Chancellor Wendy Thomson welcomed higher education leaders, including the Secretary of State for Education, to Senate House. Here you can read the Vice-Chancellor’s speech on the history of the University and developments since its establishment, to make the University of London the largest UK provider of international distance education. 

Wendy Thomson Vice-Chancellor

Senate House

"Senate House has often been at the centre of world events. William Beveridge was the driving force behind the idea of Senate House, when he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of London. As a social policy scholar, I do get a thrill from sitting here in Beveridge Hall tonight. 

Charles Holden was chosen as the architect, pioneering an architecture of ‘function and pure form’. But the Second World War marked the end of those great plans for what was to have been the home for all London’s universities. Instead it became the home of the Ministry of Information. Home to the anti-lies bureau during the Second World War to combat enemy disinformation. Some things don’t change. 

It has been said to host the original room 101, and is said to be the building on which George Orwell based the Ministry of Truth in his novel 1984. Orwell’s wife Eileen worked here when it hosted the ministry of information during the Second World War. In a neat twist, Senate House also featured in the film of the book. I should say that there was also a room 101 at the BBC, where Orwell worked, but I’m loathe to let the facts get in the way of a good story!

The University of London

While it is the iconic home of the University of London, there is much more to be said about the University than tales of Senate House. 

The University of London received its first Royal Charter in 1836. The first secular university. It was also the first university to admit women in 1868.

It was established to conduct examinations and award degrees to bridge the divide between the godless UCL and the god-fearing KCL. Now it’s a federation of 17 member institutions, formerly known as colleges, which are considered world class universities in their own right. Our most recent member is City, University of London, which joined us in 2016.

Over the centuries the University of London has taken different roles, always focused on enabling access to high quality education at an affordable price point to people from around the world. 

The University’s distance learning programme was founded in 1858. So distanced education isn’t a new-fangled idea to us but a well-proven approach that has demonstrated its value to students who would not otherwise have had the opportunity.

Today, we have more than 50,000 students studying a wide range of programmes in 190 countries. With academic direction provided by the Member Institutes, the central university designs and delivers online programmes, provides student services, assessments and works with 120 recognised teaching centres around the world.   

This education model has been a signature for the success of the University of London programmes, particularly for undergraduates (UG), who can take our degrees online and receive additional academic support from a local Teaching Centre.  

Over the years we have been invited to offer programmes and develop universities in Canada, Mauritius, Tasmania, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Singapore, Trinidad.  We can – and regularly do – point to a legacy of institution and capacity building. 

We are incredibly proud of our students – who include DH Lawrence, HG Wells, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, (though he wasn’t allowed to graduate from where he studied, in prison). And during the Second World War, some 2,000 prisoners of war studied degrees and took University of London examinations, enabled by the Red Cross.  

We have students today in the Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iran, Hong Kong. Our student based in Antarctica just recently graduated. 

Typically our students are studying part-time, self-funded and juggling many personal and professional responsibilities.  Each graduate has their struggle. 

The world of transnational education and online education is changing rapidly, accelerated by the pandemic and fuelled by a number of major private sector providers.   

Our strategy commits the university to maintaining and growing our position as the UK’s leading higher education provider, working with our member institutes.   

School of Advanced Study 

Senate House is home to the 8 institutes of the School of Advanced Study, recognised by Research England as a National Centre for the Humanities.

Though based in London, the School serves the whole community of arts and humanities researchers across the UK, working with many of the scholars based in your institutions. 

One of the key programmes is the Being Human Festival, the only UK-wide national festival of the humanities. This year, it featured 253 events and activities, held in 51 towns and cities across the UK, and in partnership with 54 universities and 10 research organisations and 144 community and cultural groups.  

It helps researchers across the UK to engage with new and multiple communities, and co-produce new knowledge, make new connections and partnerships – many that last beyond the festival itself. 

Senate House Library

Senate House Library has been celebrating its 150th birthday this academic year. It holds 2 million books, 50 special collections, and over 1,800 special collections. 

We are very proud of the global and growing nature of the collections, and I encourage you to see the Nelson Mandela letters in the displays outside.   

We also hold the only original pamphlet penned by Gandhi calling for workers’ action in his Majoor Mahajan movement, as well as Dickens pamphlets and 14 Shakespeare portfolios.  

Broadening our reach 

It is worth mentioning the Warburg Institute, which became part of the University of London in 1944 and has been housed since 1958 in a building designed by Charles Holden, opening onto three of Bloomsbury’s historic squares.

The Warburg Institute is one of the world’s leading centres for studying the interaction of ideas, images, and society. It was founded in Hamburg by the pioneering historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929) and it was exiled to England in 1933, becoming the only institution to be saved from Nazi Germany and survive intact in Britain today. The Warburg has enabled us to develop our relationships with Hamburg and Berlin. And our Institute in Paris provides another focus for our European partnerships and the home for programmes delivered by Queen Mary, Kings, Goldsmiths and others. 

Our civic role

Finally, I have brought home to the University its civic role. I have a long-established relationship with London, having been chief executive of Newham and DCE of Islington.  And I do mean long -  my first job at the Greater London Council in 1986. 

The University of London is charged with the challenge of social mobility in London, and the contribution made by education.  Member institutions such as QMUL, KCL, UCL, Goldsmiths all play a major role in levelling up London’s disadvantaged students, and the social and economic recovery of the city.

We have established the London Research and Policy Partnership, working across London’s universities with the GLA and London’s Councils. 

And our Refugee Law Centre offers legal service to vulnerable asylum seekers; staffed by law students and faculty from across the University, supported by major law firms in London, who give their time and services free. 

Working with our member institutions, the University of London is the largest UK provider of international distanced education, a national centre for the humanities supported by world-class libraries and Institutes, and a proud citizen of London, Europe and the world. I am incredibly proud to stand here as Vice-Chancellor of such an institution, and very pleased to welcome you all here this evening.”

Image of Senate House from the outside