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The University of London

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If one is walking in the theatre district of London’s West End near Leicester Square and Piccadilly, and wanders along Tottenham Court Road toward Euston Station, on the skyline one sees an arresting-sight monolith among needle-like church towers. This is the University of London I want to tell you about.

In the early 19th century Oxford and Cambridge were the only 2 universities in England. The cost of education at these universities was so high that only the sons of the wealthier classes could afford to attend. But more restrictive still were the religious tests: only the Church of England members could attend. It was to overcome these limitations that in 1827, in London, a non-denominational college, – “University College” was founded. Its first years were years of struggle for survival against hostile forces of the Church and the State. It was opposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, who in 1831 opened a rival institution – King’s College.

In 1836 these 2 institutions, University College and King’s College, joined forces. Each retained the control of its own internal organization and teaching; a separate body, the University of London, was created to “conduct the examination of, and to confer degrees upon their students”. Thus was born the University of London.

The long reign of Victoria saw many and rapid changes in the University. Bedford College for women, Imperial College of Science and Technology, and many other schools and colleges became a part of the federal University. The famed London School of Economics was a newcomer on 1895.

Up until 1900 the University was only an examining body but in that year an Act of Parliament permitted to “provide lecture rooms, museums, laboratories, workshops, and other facilities for the purpose both of teaching and research”. This allowed the first actual teaching on any level.

Today the University of London is a federation of colleges, each largely independent of the British Parliament in academic matters.

The “department of Extra-Mural Studies” enrols nearly 12, 000 persons. In London there are 4 faculties of Theology, 13 of Arts, 31 of Medicine, 10 of Science, etc. At present there are 10 “Institutions” of which the Institute of Education, itself a complex organization, is one. All teacher training colleges in the London area – and there are many – are parts of this Institute.

Next door to the Institute of Education in the Mallet Street is a plain brick building, dull of exterior and in the daytime almost lifeless. It is Birkbeck College accepting for undergraduate work “only part-time students who earn their living during the day”.

For fear you should think that size is the only claim to fame, let me drop a few names associated, with the University of London: Sir Alex Fleming, Thomas Huxley, Michael Faraday, Sir Fred Clarke, Lord Macmillian, Sidney Webb.

In many ways the University has departed from the traditions of Oxford and Cambridge, London was the first to abolish religious tests, to admit women in England for degrees, to grant degrees without residence. The University abolished the requirement of English for entrance. The cap and gown are missing in classes here but the tradition of scholarship is strong.

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