Birkbeck 190 years on

190 years since George Birkbeck announced his plans for an evening educational institution in London, Vice-Master Professor Philip Dewe reflects on how the College stays true to the mission and vision of its founder.

190 years ago today, George Birkbeck called a meeting at the Crown and Anchor tavern on the Strand in London, to discuss the idea of establishing  a Mechanics’ Institute to educate London’s working population. That Institute went on to become Birkbeck College. Therefore, today seems like a very good moment to reflect on where the College is today, and how it has responded to modern-day challenges in making education available to working people in London.

When George Birkbeck announced his plans they met with fierce opposition from some quarters and accusations that he was “scattering the seeds of evil”. Some groups feared that “if you educated the sailors to the level of the captain then you would provoke a mutiny”. Luckily, in 2013, the benefits of a highly educated population have been more universally embraced, but that does not mean that as London’s only specialist provider of part-time and evening education the College no longer faces challenges.

A particularly acute recent challenge was the 2012 increase in tuition fees across England, as higher education institutions responded to the withdrawal of government funding for undergraduate courses. Across England, part-time enrolments decreased and at Birkbeck we thought long and hard about how we could continue to make higher education available to working Londoners in a model that met their needs and aspirations as learners. We decided that this year we would expand the number of courses that we offered in an accelerated version – three years for an undergraduate degree, rather than the four years of our traditional courses, but still taught in the evening to enable our students to earn money, gain work experience or raise families during the day.

When George Birkbeck published a notice in The Times to announce his public meeting at the Crown and Anchor he didn’t anticipate that nearly 2,000 men would turn up, crowding the tavern and spilling out onto the Strand. This year, the College has seen another inundation of students, hungry to learn and keen to take advantage of our prestigious teaching and to learn from our research-active lecturers. Demand for our new three-year programmes has been incredibly strong. The students  that we have recruited onto these new programmes are similar in background to those who would previously have signed up to our four-year courses and I am delighted that we have been able to provide increasingly flexible study models for the students for whom our sort of provision is most appropriate. It is the ability of the College and our staff to develop and provide increasingly flexible study models that has enabled us to weather the latest storm and will enable us to continue going from strength to strength while offering something unique within the UK higher education sector.

Nearly two centuries on from the Crown and Anchor meeting, George Birkbeck’s rallying call that ‘now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge’ is as powerful and relevant as it was at the time. Having seen how the College has adapted and changed to face this challenge and those that have come before it, I think that we can confidently say that we have stayed true to the founding  mission, and I am proud that we are a College that George Birkbeck would still recognise from his proposal on this day in 1823.

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