Birkbeck, University of London

Birkbeck, University of London
Birkbeck, University of London
Motto In nocte consilium
"Study by night"[1]
Established 1920 - Constituent College of University of London
1907 - Birkbeck College
1823 - London Mechanics' Institute
Type Public
Endowment £2.9m[2]
Chancellor HRH The Princess Royal (University of London)
President Eric Hobsbawm
Master Professor David S Latchman
Students 19,020[3]
Undergraduates 15,475[3]
Postgraduates 3,540[3]
Location London, United Kingdom
Affiliations University of London
Association of Commonwealth Universities
1994 Group
Birkbeck logo

Birkbeck, University of London (formerly Birkbeck College, informally BBK) is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and a constituent college of the federal University of London. It offers many Master's and Bachelor's degree programmes that can be studied either part-time or full-time, though nearly all teaching is in the evening. It also admits full-time (as well as part-time) students for PhDs. Its staff members have excellent research reputations in subjects such as English, History, History of Art, Philosophy, Psychology, Spanish, Science and Crystallography. It also offers many continuing education courses leading to certificates and diplomas, foundation degrees as well as other short courses.



In 1823, George Birkbeck, an early pioneer of adult education, founded the then "London Mechanics' Institute" at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand. Over two thousand people attended.[4] However the idea was not universally popular and some accused Birkbeck of "scattering the seeds of evil."[5]

Two years later, the institute moved to the Southampton Buildings on Chancery Lane. In 1830, the first female students were admitted. In 1858, changes to the University of London's structure resulting in an opening up of access to the examinations for its degree. The Institute became the main provider of part-time university education.[4]

The Institute changed its name to the "Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution" in 1866 and in 1885 it moved to the Breams Building, on Fetter Lane, where it would remain for the next sixty-seven years.[4]

The early twentieth century saw further developments, with Birkbeck Students' Union being established in 1904, and in 1907 the institute's name changed once more, to "Birkbeck College". In 1913, a review of the University of London (which had been restructured in 1900) successfully recommended that Birkbeck become a constituent college, although the outbreak of the First World War delayed this until 1920. The Royal Charter for the college was granted in 1926.[4] The college's first female professor, Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan began teaching botany in 1921.[5]

During the Second World War, Birkbeck was the only central University of London college to not relocate out of the capital. In 1941, the library suffered a direct hit during The Blitz but teaching continued. In 1952, the College moved to its present location in Malet Street.[4]

In 1988, the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of the University of London was incorporated into Birkbeck, becoming at first the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies. In later years it would go by the name of the Faculty of Continuing Education, then the School of Continuing Education. It was called the Faculty of Lifelong Learning until 2009 when it merged into the other faculties.[4]

In 2002, it dropped the word College to become simply Birkbeck, University of London. However, the term Birkbeck College is still often colloquially used, and survives on the façade of the main building itself. The following year, a major redevelopment of the Malet Street building was opened.[4]

It was announced in 2006 that Birkbeck had been granted £5 million by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to expand its provision into east London, working with the University of East London.[6] The partnership was formally launched on November 21, 2006 and is called Birkbeck Stratford.[7]

The School of Continuing Education

The School of Continuing Education (aka the Faculty of Lifelong Learning), which specialised in extra-mural studies did not become an integral part of Birkbeck until 1988 but has a long separate history. It has now been integrated into the main College.

In 1876, the London Society for the Extension of University Education was founded, boosting the aims of encouraging working people to undertake higher education. In 1903, it became the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of the University of London and it was integrated into Birkbeck in 1988. In 2009, the Faculty of Lifelong Learning was incorporated into the main College structure.[8]

Campus and location

The façade of the main building of Birkbeck, University of London (formerly Birkbeck College).

Originally known as the London Mechanics' Institute 1823 and later Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, the main building is between Malet Street and Woburn Square in Bloomsbury, with a number of other buildings on nearby streets. The School of Arts, including the Department of English & Humanities, is housed in Virginia Woolf's former Gordon Square residence in Bloomsbury. Other notable former residents of this house include Leslie Stephen, Vanessa Bell, John Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova.

Many Birkbeck classes are taught at other locations across the Bloomsbury area. This is due to a combination of Birkbeck's widening participation strategy to make higher education accessible and also because nearly all classes on one day are taught at the same time, resulting in heavy competition for limited space.

In 2006, it was announced that Birkbeck will be expanding into east London, in conjunction with the University of East London. Initially space will be rented as well as utilising the University of East London Stratford Campus, but the aim is to construct a dedicated facility in Stratford. The project is known as Birkbeck Stratford.[6]

Research and teaching

Part of the main Birbeck campus in Bloomsbury.

While part-time undergraduate teaching remains the focus and mandate of Birkbeck, the college has recently begun to focus on research in the arts and humanities.[citation needed]

The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities[9] was established in 2004, with the renowned but controversial Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek appointed as International Director. According to its website, the Institute aims to, among other things, "engage with important public issues of our time through a series of open debates, lectures, seminars and conferences" and "foster and promote a climate of interdisciplinary research and collaboration among academics and researchers". The launch of the Institute wasn't without controversy, provoking an article in The Observer newspaper titled "What have intellectuals ever done for the world?"[10] which criticised the ostensible irrelevance and elitism of contemporary public intellectuals.

2004 also saw Birkbeck enter into a research and teaching collaboration with the Institute of Education, jointly founding the London Knowledge Lab. This interdisciplinary research institute brings together social scientists and computer scientists to address research questions about technology and learning.[11]

Meanwhile, the London Consortium graduate school — a collaboration between Birkbeck, the Tate Galleries, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Architectural Association, and, until 1999, the British Film Institute - has been running since the mid-1990s, offering masters and doctoral degrees in the interdisciplinary humanities and cultural studies, resourced and jointly taught by all the participating institutions. Its permanent and adjunct faculty include figures such as Tom McCarthy[disambiguation needed ], Colin MacCabe, Laura Mulvey, Steven Connor, Marina Warner, Juliet Mitchell, Stuart Hall, Roger Scruton, Salman Rushdie, Tilda Swinton as well as Žižek. Its current chair is Anthony Julius.

Science research at Birkbeck has a notable tradition. Physicist David Bohm who made notable contributions to the theory of Quantum mechanics was professor of Theoretical Physics from 1961–87 and Nobel Laureates Aaron Klug and Derek Barton both worked in the faculty of crystallography. Birkbeck is part of the Institute of Structural Molecular Biology, which includes the Bloomsbury Centre for Structural biology, established in 1998. This is a collaborative venture between Birkbeck College and University College London and is a leading academic centre for translating gene sequences and determining protein structure and function. It also includes the Bloomsbury Centre for Bioinformatics, a collaborative venture also between Birkbeck College and University College London for research into Bioinformatics, Genomics, Systems Biology, GRID computing and Text mining.



Birkbeck is often not included in British Newspaper University league tables, since these are usually based on the statistics for full-time undergraduates (of which Birkbeck had none in 2005-2006[3]), but Birkbeck was ranked 13th in The Guardian's 2001 Research Assessment Exercise league table and 26th by the Times Higher Education Supplement's equivalent 2001 RAE league table. Birkbeck also appears in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Top 500 World Universities ranking; the 2010-11 Times Higher Education World University Rankings lists Birkbeck at number 152 in the World.[12] The data also shows that Birkbeck is ranked 23rd in the UK and is rated above several large Russell Group universities.[13]

On 23 September 2010, it was announced that Birkbeck has been shortlisted for the prestigious 2010 Times Higher Education University of the Year award.[14]


The Guardian's 2001 RAE subject ranking league tables put Birkbeck in the top 10 for research in the following subjects: English (1st), History (1st), History of Art (2nd), Philosophy (6th), Psychology (5th), Iberian and Latin American Languages (1st), Earth Sciences (4th), Law (9th), Economics and Econometrics (5th), and Politics and International Studies (5th).

Birkbeck's School of English and Humanities was rated 5* in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, as were the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, the School of Crystallography, and the section for Spanish and Latin American studies within the School of Languages, Linguistics and Culture, and the Dept. of Psychological Sciences in the School of Psychology—ranking these departments with, and in some cases above, Oxford and Cambridge.

Student life

As Birkbeck primarily offers part-time courses, often in the evenings, student life is less centralised than in other universities. It does not offer its own halls of residence, for instance, though Birkbeck students do have access to the University of London's intercollegiate halls.

Birkbeck Students' Union offers a number of societies for students, as well as a football club that competes in the University of London league. It also provides student representation and support, a student magazine, a student shop and a bar. Birkbeck students also have access to the societies and clubs of the University of London Union (whose building adjoins Birkbeck's Bloomsbury site). Accordingly, London Student distributes at the Union.

The college arms include a lamp and an owl, symbolising the college's motto In nocte consilium (translated as "study by night"). Because of this, the student magazine was called Lamp and Owl. Its name was later changed to Lampanelle, and after briefly ceasing production in 2009 under the editorship of Zein Sufi, it was relaunched in 2010 by the Birkbeck Journalism Society.

The original name of the institution was the London Mechanics' Institute. For this reason, the annual literary magazine published by the Birkbeck MA Creative Writing programme is called The Mechanics' Institute Review.

The college has entered teams in University Challenge over the years, with varied results. In 1997, a team scored just 40 points - at that stage the lowest score since the series had been revived, though this has since been broken by New Hall, Cambridge, the University of Bradford and the University Challenge: The Professionals team of Members of Parliament.[15] 1998 saw a reversal of fortunes when Birkbeck reached the final, losing to Magdalen College, Oxford. In 2003, Birkbeck again reached the final, facing another team of mature students from Cranfield University. On this occasion, Birkbeck won.


  • Edward Davey Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Kingston and Surbiton
  • Julia Goodfellow former Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
  • Leonard Wolfson, Baron Wolfson

Notable people


  1. ^ Translation used by Birkbeck."Centre for Learning and Professional Development - Communication Skills". Birkbeck, University of London. Retrieved 2007-08-05. 
  2. ^ "Financial Statements for the year ended 31 July 2008". Retrieved 2011-09-25. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Table 0a - All students by institution, mode of study, level of study, gender and domicile 2005/06". Higher Education Statistics Agency online statistics. Retrieved 2007-03-31. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "The History of Birkbeck". Birkbeck, University of London. Archived from the original on 2006-10-06. Retrieved 2006-11-26. 
  5. ^ a b Birkbeck, University of London Continuing Education Courses 2002 Entry. Birkbeck External Relations Department. 2002. p. 5. 
  6. ^ a b "Birkbeck projects win £8.7m HEFCE funding for innovative higher education provision in London". Birkbeck, University of London. Retrieved 2006-11-26. [dead link]
  7. ^ "Birkbeck/UEL Partnership at Stratford launched". Birkbeck, University of London. Retrieved 2006-11-26. 
  8. ^ Birkbeck, University of London Continuing Education Courses 2004 Entry. Birkbeck External Relations Department. 2004. p. 4. 
  9. ^ "Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities". Retrieved 2006-11-26. 
  10. ^ "What have intellectuals ever done for the world?". The Observer November 28, 2004.,6903,1361235,00.html. Retrieved 2006-11-18. 
  11. ^ 'ALT Lab Group: London Knowledge Lab' page. Association for Learning Technology Lab Group website. Available online at:
  12. ^ "Top 200 - The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010-2011". Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  13. ^ "Birkbeck ranked in Top 200 of World Universities". 2010-09-16. Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  14. ^ "The Awards 2010". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  15. ^ New Hall, Cambridge in 1998 and University of Bradford in 2004 both scored 35 points. In the special series University Challenge: The Professionals, the Members of Parliament achieved 25 points - the lowest score in the modern era. The score of 40 has also been achieved by Oxford Brookes University (1998), the University of St Andrews (2002 & 2005), Keele University (2002) and Queen's University Belfast (2005). Statistics for the original incarnation of the series are not known, though the lowest score achieved was by the University of Sussex in 1972 with a score of 10. "University Challenge - Lowest Scores". Sean Blanchflower's University Challenge Page. Retrieved 2006-11-18. 

External links

Coordinates: 51°31′19″N 0°07′49″W / 51.52194°N 0.13032°W / 51.52194; -0.13032

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