Birkbeck’s journey from 1823 to London 2012

This post was contributed by Tricia King, Birkbeck’s Pro-Vice-Master for Student Experience and Director of External Relations

“What would George think?” is shorthand at Birkbeck for “are we still true to our mission?”, and it’s the title of a new blog that records our attempts to find the right way through a challenging  time of major change in higher education.

Our story began in 1823 with radical thinking and a packed London pub. George Birkbeck, the College’s founding father, had placed an advert in The Times promoting his vision of evening education for adults. Around 2,000 people responded by flocking to the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand to hear what Birkbeck and his supporters had to say. And so, the London Mechanics’ Institute, later re-named Birkbeck College, was born. Birkbeck’s actions triggered a hostile response from the government and media of the day.  “If you educate the sailor to the same level of the captain, what you will get is mutiny” said the first, by educating the working classes, “this man is sewing the seeds of evil in our society” said the second.

Modern day Birkbeck, “London’s evening university”, now offers a flexible education to a 18,000- strong student population as diverse as the capital city.  Our youngest student is 18, our oldest graduated last year aged 102.  We are a College of the University of London and a world top 150 research intensive university, yet we educate one of the most non-traditional student bodies in the UK.  We believe we are an institution that has tenaciously held onto our mission, despite the College history books recording the many crises we have survived over the years.  Defending our commitment to research and the flexible education of non-traditional students is always challenging. Our unique mission always means that change affects us differently when compared with other higher education institutions.

George would undoubtedly recognise current aspirations, none more so than our efforts to bring our unique blend of high quality, evening education to east London – an area of low participation in higher education. Since 2007, Birkbeck has worked in partnership with the University of East London to bring evening education into the mix to enable ambitious east Londoners to maximise the opportunities opening up in their area. We will also start a post-Olympic countdown of our own this autumn to mark one  year until our new campus opens in Stratford in September 2013.

As well as our close association with educational opportunities and the regeneration of Stratford catalysed by the Olympics, we also have sporting links with London 2012. Birkbeck has long been proud of the achievements of its exceptional students and, as a capital city university, it is delighted that a former student starts his London Olympic journey in the next few days.  Weeks after completing his PhD in crystallography with us, rower Rob Williams is a contender for a gold medal in the lightweight men’s four. He and his GB teammates are joint favourites for first place after winning the World Cup competition in Munich in June. Their first heat in the Olympics will be on Saturday 28 July at Eton Dorney. We will be watching with keen interest.

‘What would George think’ if he were around today?  He would be both delighted and concerned.  Delighted with the College’s determination to survive and thrive at a time of change and delighted with the achievements of all our students, whether they are taking part in the world’s greatest sporting event or taking up the opportunity of a first class education at a world-class institution.  Concern would focus, as always, on how our unique institution can be true to our mission and George’s vision in the hard times ahead.


2 thoughts on “Birkbeck’s journey from 1823 to London 2012

  1. whatever ones view of Birkbecks politics and those of his successors such as Keynes and Orwell, it is a magnificent institution. Somewhat ironic that it is now for UGrad Cert HEs out of teh price range of most people on income support and DLA but Birkbeck east (and West?) and the staff wages have to be paid for

    Mr. James Ware

    • Hi James,
      Thanks for your comment. We agree that Birkbeck is a great institution, and are working hard to ensure we can continue to offer an excellent and affordable education.

      Regarding the new fees structure, any UK or EU student studying at university for the first time will be able to take out a government loan to cover the cost of their tuition fees for Cert HEs or for undergraduate degrees. That means that they won’t need to have the money to pay fees upfront. For students on a low income, Birkbeck has put a financial support package in place, including cash bursaries, which will help them to cover some of the costs of studying. If you want to find out more there is information on our website at Students with a disability who meet the income criteria will be guaranteed either a reduced fee and/or a cash bursary. They may also be able to apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance. Their DLA payments are unaffected by their student loan, fee waivers or bursaries if they are studying part-time. Our disability office will be able to advise them on what support is available (

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