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History of University of London

The University of London is unlike many other universities. Our commitment to widening access has shaped our history, from our foundation to the present day.

Sir William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Burlington (later 7th Duke of Devonshire), Chancellor 1930
Sir William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Burlington (later 7th Duke of Devonshire), Chancellor 1930

‘The People’s University’

Established as a secular alternative to Oxford and Cambridge, the only two other UK universities at the time, we became the first to explicitly exclude religious qualification as an entry requirement. 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.

The birthplace of long distance learning

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.