Birkbeck, University of London

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Birkbeck, University of London (formerly Birkbeck College, informally BBK), is a public research university located in London, in the United Kingdom, which specialises in evening higher education, 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, Economics, Statistics, History, History of Art, Philosophy, Psychology, Spanish and Science. It also offers many continuing education courses leading to certificates and diplomas, foundation degrees as well as other short courses.

Birkbeck counts four Nobel prize winners and a British Prime Minister among its former students and staff.



File:George Birkbeck.jpg
George Birkbeck, founder of Birkbeck College

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.<ref name="BBK">Template:Cite web</ref> However the idea was not universally popular and some accused Birkbeck of "scattering the seeds of evil."<ref name="FCE02">Template:Cite book</ref>

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.<ref name="BBK"/>

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.<ref name="BBK"/>

Birkbeck College

The early twentieth century saw further developments, with Birkbeck Students' Union being established in 1904, and in 1907 the institutes 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.<ref name="BBK"/> The college's first female professor, Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan began teaching botany in 1921.<ref name="FCE02"/> Among the other distinguished faculty in the of the inter-war years were Nikolaus Pevsner, J. D. Bernal and Cyril Joad.

During the Second World War, Birkbeck was the only central University of London college not to relocate out of the capital. In 1941, the library suffered a direct hit during The Blitz but teaching continued. During the war the College organised lunch time extra-mural lectures for the public given by, among others, Joad, Pevsner and Harold Nicolson.

In 1952, the college moved to its present location in Malet Street.<ref name="BBK"/>

File:Birkbeck College phototram.jpg
The former main entrance of Birkbeck College. The new one is on the other side of this building.

Current status

In 2002, the college was renamed, becoming simply Birkbeck, University of London; the term Birkbeck College is still in use, and survives on the façade of the main building itself. The following year, a major redevelopment of the Malet Street building was opened.<ref name="BBK"/>

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.<ref name="BBKSTRAT1"/> The partnership was formally launched on November 21, 2006 and is called Birkbeck Stratford.<ref name="BBKSTRAT2">Template:Cite web</ref>

It is the largest College of the University of London not to award its own degrees.

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 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 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.<ref name="FCE04">Template:Cite book</ref>

Campus and location

right Birkbeck's main building is located between Malet Street and Woburn Square in Bloomsbury, with a number of 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, 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.<ref name="BBKSTRAT1">Template:Cite web Template:Dead link</ref>

Research and teaching

File:Birkbeck College, University of London.jpg
Part of the main Birbeck campus in Bloomsbury. Also the main entrance of Birkbeck College.

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.Template:Citation needed

The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities<ref name="BIH">Template:Cite web</ref> 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?"<ref name="OBSERV">Template:Cite web</ref> 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.<ref name="ALT Lab Group website">'ALT Lab Group: London Knowledge Lab' page. Association for Learning Technology Lab Group website. Available online at:</ref>

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, Colin MacCabe, Laura Mulvey, Steven Connor, Marina Warner, Juliet Mitchell, Stuart Hall, Roger Scruton, Salman Rushdie, Tilda Swinton as well as Slavoj 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.


Template:Infobox UK university rankings Birkbeck is often not included in rankings of British universities, since these are usually based on the statistics for full-time undergraduates.

Birkbeck ranked 13th in The Guardian's 2001 Research Assessment Exercise league table and 26th in Times Higher Education's equivalent table. In the 2008 RAE results, Birkbeck ranked in the top 25% of UK multi-faculty Higher Education Institutions. The RAE rated the quality of research in a range of subjects at 159 Higher Education Institution's in the UK. Birkbeck submissions from Earth Sciences, Psychology, History, Classics and Archaeology and History of Art, Film and Visual Media were rated in the top five nationally.

The 2010 QS World University Rankings placed Birkbeck at 93rd in the world for Arts and Humanities. In the same year the Times Higher Education World University Rankings placed Birkbeck 152nd overall, ahead of five Russell Group universities - Newcastle University, University of Liverpool, University of Leeds, University of Nottingham and University of Exeter. In 2011 QS World University Rankings placed Birkbeck at 111th for Arts & Humanities. In the 2011-12 Times Higher Education World University Rankings Birkbeck was ranked 149th in the world. The data also shows that Birkbeck is ranked 23rd in the UK and is rated above several large Russell Group universities, including the University of Warwick, University of Exeter, and Cardiff University. In the 2012-13 Times Higher Education World University Rankings Birkbeck is ranked 200th in the world and 31st in the United Kingdom. In the QS ranking Birkbeck climbed up two places to 109th for Arts and Humanities.

In 2010, Birkbeck was shortlisted for the prestigious Times Higher Education University of the Year Award.


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 University.

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 changed in 2010 to 'Lampanelle', and after an 18 month hiatus returned in February 2012 with the name having reverted to The Lamp And Owl.

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.

University challenge

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.<ref name="UCstats">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. Template:Cite web</ref> 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.

In the past two decades Birkbeck, University of London has consistently done well in University Challenge, ranked among the best since the TV series was revived with Jeremy Paxman.


Birkbeck's School of Law actively competes in national and international mooting competitions. At the 2012 Inner Temple Inter-Varsity Moot Birkbeck went through to the quarter-finals, being selected as one of the final eight teams of the 28 UK Universities which competed for the prestigious Inner Temple award. In 2012 Birkbeck was entered in the prized University of Oxford-based Price Moot Competition and finished within the top 15 Law Schools in the competition. The competition draws Law Schools from universities all around the world and focuses on international law.

Notable people

Faculty and students

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  • Chris Abani, Writer
  • Baroness Joan Bakewell, broadcaster, critic, President of Birkbeck College
  • Anthony Bale, medievalist
  • Derek Barton, organic chemist and Nobel Laureate for chemistry
  • Antony Beevor, historian
  • Julia Bell, author
  • Marian Bell, economist; current member of the Monetary Policy Committee
  • Luciana Berger, Politician and Member of Parliament
  • J. D. Bernal, pioneer of X-ray crystallography
  • Annie Besant, theosophist
  • Simon Bird, actor and comedian
  • George Birkbeck (1776–1841), doctor, philanthropist and founder of Birkbeck
  • Patrick Blackett, Professor and Nobel Laureate for Physics, 1948
  • Tessa Blackstone Master of the College, Vice-Chancellor of University of Greenwich
  • Tom Blundell, crystallographer, Fellow of the Royal Society
  • David Bohm, quantum physicist
  • Andrew Donald Booth, Head of Numerical Automation
  • C. Delisle Burns (1879-1942), atheist and secularist writer and lecturer
  • Ian Christie, Professor of film and media history
  • Steven Connor, Professor
  • Diana Coole, Social scientist
  • Alex Corbisiero, England and British Lions Rugby Player
  • Beth Cordingly, Actress
  • David Cox, Statistician
  • Bernard Crick, Political theorist
  • Juliet Davenport, Businesswoman
  • Alan Davey, Civil servant; current Chief executive of British Arts Council
  • Edward Davey, Politician and Member of Parliament
  • Dido, Singer
  • Jennifer Donnelly, Writer
  • Costas Douzinas, Law professor
  • Paul Ekins, Professor in sustainable development
  • T. S. Eliot, Nobel Laureate for Literature 1948, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic
  • H. R. Ellis Davidson, Academic and English antiquarian
  • Samir El-Youssef, Writer
  • Tracey Emin, Artist
  • Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge
  • Nissim Ezekiel, Professor, poet
  • Dame Millicent Fawcett, Suffragist
  • Orlando Figes, History professor
  • Ben Fine, Professor
  • Mark Fox, journalist and public policy analyst
  • Rosalind Franklin, Crystallographer
  • Hugh Gaitskell, Lecturer
  • Marcus Garvey, Founder Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League
  • Julia Goldsworthy, politician; former Liberal Democrat MP for Falmouth and Camborne
  • A. C. Grayling, philosopher
  • Bear Grylls, adventurer, author and television presenter
  • John Joseph Haldane, philosopher
  • Richard Hamblyn, lecturer in creative writing
  • Kenneth Hare, Master of the College
  • Frank Hartley, Vice-chancellor of the university
  • Basil Hiley, quantum physicist and emeritus professor
  • Paul Hirst, Professor
  • Eric Hobsbawm, President of the college, Marxist historian of the rise of industrial capitalism, socialism, and nationalism
  • Thomas Hodgskin, lecturer in economic theory
  • Kenneth Holmes, crystallographer
  • Zhu Hua, Applied linguist
  • Mark Johnson, Professor
  • Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Professor


  • Professor Joni Lovenduski, Political Scientist
  • Karl Marx, Economist and revolutionary socialist
  • Ernest Millington, Politician
  • Laura Mulvey, Professor of film and media studies
  • Vernon Ingram, Fellow of the Royal Society
  • Kitty Ussher, British economist and former Labour Party politician.
  • C. E. M. Joad, Reader in Philosophy, author and popular broadcaster
  • William Joyce, Deputy Leader of the British Union of Fascists and Nazi wartime broadcaster
  • Anthony Julius, Visiting professor
  • Aaron Klug, Crystallographer and Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, 1982
  • Toby Litt, Author, lecturer
  • John Francis Lockwood Master of Birkbeck College 1951-1965; Vice-Chancellor of the University of London,1955-1958
  • James Lovelock, developer of the Gaia Hypothesis
  • Ramsay MacDonald, Politician; first Labour Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
  • John McDonnell, Politician
  • Denis MacShane, Politician
  • Leonard Mandel, Nuclear physicist
  • John Redcliffe Maud, Master of the College
  • Ehsan Masood, Science writer and Editor of Research Fortnight
  • Mark Mazower, Professor
  • Louis Mordell, Researcher in mathematics
  • Lisa Nandy, Politician and Member of Parliament
  • Jesse Norman, Politician and Member of Parliament
  • Timothy O'Shea, Master of the College, Principal of the University of Edinburgh
  • Nerina Pallot, singer
  • Nick Palmer, Politician and former Member of Parliament
  • Anita Pollack, Politician and Member of European Parliament
  • Nikolaus Pevsner, Professor
  • Ben Pimlott, Professor
  • Arthur Wing Pinero, actor, stage director and dramatist
  • Roger Penrose, Theoretical physicist
  • Lucy Riall, Historian
  • J. Philippe Rushton, Psychologist
  • Jenny Rowe, Chief Executive, UK Supreme Court
  • Richard Sambrook, Broadcaster, formerly director of the BBC World
  • Frank Sando, Former International Cross-Country Champion
  • Andy Saull, Rugby player
  • Roger Scruton, Professor
  • Helen Sharman, Chemist and cosmonaut
  • Joost Smiers, Academic
  • Nick Smith, Politician
  • Vaughan Smith, Soldier, journalist, cameraman, and social entrepreneur
  • Laura Solomon, Writer
  • William Stanley, inventor, engineer and philanthropist
  • Kim Thomson, Stage, film and television actress
  • Laurie Taylor, Sociologist
  • Colin Teevan, Professor of Playwriting
  • Tracey Thorne, Pop star, singer with Everything but the Girl
  • Ronald Tress, Economist
  • Li Wei, Academic, linguist
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams, Lecturer
  • Rob Williams (rower), Rower, gold medalist in the 2012 Olympics
  • Sidney James Webb, 1st Baron Passfield, Founder of the London School of Economics
  • Barbara Wootton, Lecturer
  • Tony Wright, Politician, distinguished professor at Birkbeck
  • Slavoj Žižek, Philosopher



  • Edward Davey Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Kingston and Surbiton
  • Frank Dobson, Labour politician
  • Dame Vivien Duffield, philanthropist
  • Sir Richard J. Evans, historian
  • Julia Goodfellow former Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
  • Sir Peter Lampl, educationalist and philanthropist, founder of the Sutton Trust
  • Leonard Wolfson, Baron Wolfson

See also

  • List of Nobel laureates by university affiliation



External links

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