Birkbeck, George, 1776-1841, English educator. He established (1800-1804) in Glasgow a popular course of lectures for workingmen, which led to the founding of the Glasgow Mechanics' Institution in 1823. He became (1824) president of the London Mechanics' Institution and was also a founder (1827) of University College of the Univ. of London. He did much to further popular scientific instruction in England. Birkbeck Laboratory at University College was established by gifts from his pupils.

See biographies by J. S. Godard (1884) and T. Kelly (1957).

Birkbeck, Morris, 1764-1825, English pioneer in the United States. One of the most advanced agriculturists in England, he had a huge farm in Surrey. In 1817 he emigrated to the United States. He and another English traveler, George Flower, sought to create a settlement in Illinois. The two quarreled, but the undertaking resulted in the occupation of thousands of acres of land and the founding of Albion, Ill. Birkbeck's Notes on a Journey … to the Territory of Illinois (1818, repr. 1968) and Letters from Illinois (1818, repr. 1968) helped to bring European settlers to the fertile prairies of the Middle West and are invaluable historical sources.

Birkbeck, University of London, sometimes referred to by its former (and still legal) name Birkbeck College or by the abbreviation BBK, is a constituent college of the University of London. At the undergraduate level, it aims at working people who want to study for degrees in the evenings (adult education). At the postgraduate level, it offers many Master's degree programmes that can be studied either part-time or full-time, though nearly all teaching is in the evening, whilst it also admits full-time (as well as part-time) students for PhDs. Its staff members have strong research reputations. It also offers many continuing education courses leading to extramural certificates and diplomas, as well as other short courses.


Originally known as 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. Virginia Woolf fans will also be interested to know that Birkbeck's School of History of Art, Film and Visual Media is housed in Woolf's former Gordon Square residence in Bloomsbury.

Many Birkbeck classes are taught at other locations across London, including many other universities. 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 long-term aim is to construct a dedicated facility in Stratford. The project will be known as Birkbeck Stratford.


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. However the idea was not universally popular and some accused Birkbeck of "scattering the seeds of evil."

Two years later the institute would move 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.

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.

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. The college's first female professor, Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan began teaching botany in 1921.

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.

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 is now called the Faculty of Lifelong Learning.

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.

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. The partnership was formally launched on November 21 2006 and is called Birkbeck Stratford.

The School of Continuing Education

The current School of Continuing Education, which specialises in extra-mural studies did not become an integral part of Birkbeck until 1988 but has a long separate history.

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. Initially known as the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies, it has also been called the Faculty of Continuing Education before adopting its current name in 2005.

Research and Teaching

While part-time undergraduate teaching remains the focus and mandate of Birkbeck, the college has recently grown into a powerhouse for progressive research in the arts and humanities.

The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities was established in 2004, with the renowned but controversial Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek 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?" which criticised the ostensible irrelevance and elitism of contemporary public intellectuals.

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.(Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities). Its permanent and adjunct faculty include figures such as Philip Dodd, Colin MacCabe, Laura Mulvey, Steven Connor, Marina Warner, Juliet Mitchell, Stuart Hall, Roger Scruton, Salman Rushdie, as well as Zizek. 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.

Statistics & Ratings


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), 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; in 2007 it was placed in the 403-510 rank (after the first 100, universities are ranked in blocks of about 100).


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), 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 -- ranking these departments with, and in some cases above, Oxford and Cambridge.


The college is divided into four faculties, the Faculty of Arts, the Faculty of Social Sciences, the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Lifelong Learning (renamed from the Faculty of Continuing Education in autumn 2007), which are sub-divided into 16 schools. The current President of the college is the historian Eric Hobsbawm.

Student life

As Birkbeck is primarily for 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 is ajoins 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 ("advice in the night"). Because of this, the student magazine is called Lamp and Owl. Since 2007 it was relaunched as The Lampanelle.

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. 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.

Fellows of Birkbeck

Notable Birkbeck people


External links

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