When the first "London University" was established in 1828, the institution, Scottish in curriculum and teaching, was non-denominational. As such, given the intense religious rivalries at the time, there was an outcry against the "godless" university. The issue soon boiled down to which institutions had degree-granting powers, and which institutions didn't.
The compromise solution that emerged in 1836 was that the sole authority to conduct the examinations leading to degrees would be given to a new entity called the "University of London". As Sheldon Rothblatt states, "thus arose in nearly archetypal form the famous English distinction between teaching and examining, here embodied in separate institutions."
With the state giving examining powers to a separate entity, the groundwork was laid for the creation of a programme within the new university that would both administer exams and award qualifications to students either pursuing instruction at another institution, or pursuing a course of self-directed study.
Referred to as "People's University" by Charles Dickens because it provided access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds, the External Programme was chartered by Queen Victoria in 1858, making the University of London the first university to offer distance learning degrees to students.
Although enrollment increased steadily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during World War II, the External Programme witnessed an increase in enrollments from soldiers stationed abroad and, interestingly, soldiers imprisoned in German POW camps.
Because the Geneva Convention (1929) stipulated that every prisoner of war, in addition to being entitled to adequate food and medical care, had the right to exchange correspondence and receive parcels, many British POWs took advantage of this opportunity and enrolled in the University of London External Programme. The soldiers were sent study materials via the mails, and at specified intervals sat for proctored exams in the prisoner camps. Almost 11,000 exams were taken at 88 camps between 1940 and 1945. Although the exam failure rate was high, a significant number of soldiers passed their exams while imprisoned.
With the advent of inexpensive airmail services after World War II, the number of external students taking University of London courses increased dramatically.
The University of London External System is commemorating its 150th Anniversary in 2008.
A specially commissioned anniversary book has been produced to commemorate the University of London External System's 150th Anniversary.
The System offers undergraduate and postgraduate diplomas and degrees to students worldwide. Currently, there are over 40,000 students in the process of earning credentials. A designated constituent institution of the University of London called the "lead college" (e.g. Royal Holloway) creates materials to allow students to study at their own pace. Examinations take place at testing centers around the world on specified dates. Hallmarks of the program are:
As stated in the University of London Statutes, External System students are graded on the same standard as internal students to ensure a uniform credentialing process. A pupil who completes a course of study under the program is awarded a University of London degree, and should there be a lead college, a notation specifying which institution provided the instruction.
Academics at the University of London are responsible for the academic direction of the External System. As evidence of the high-standards that they set for the programme, when the External System was audited in 2005 by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the auditors decreed that "broad confidence" could be placed in the University’s management and the awards made through the External System (According to the university, "broad confidence" is "the best verdict any institution can be given by the auditors").
Most external students are in former territories of the British Empire. Currently, there are over 9,000 students enrolled in the external programme in Singapore, 5,000 in Hong Kong, 3,000 students in Trinidad and Tobago, 2,000 in Malaysia, 1,400 in Pakistan, 1,200 students in Bangladesh, 800 students in Sri Lanka, 800 students in Canada, between 1,000 and 1,999 students in the United States,, 300 students in Malta, 200+ in Australia, 200+ in South Africa, 30+ in New Zealand and many hundreds in India, among other countries.
The University of London External Programme is now to be known as the University of London External System.
The External System offers a variety of undergraduate qualifications, each directed by one of the university's colleges (called "lead colleges"). They include:
Subject - Degree - Lead College
The External System offers taught postgraduate qualifications in a variety of Arts and Science disciplines.
Recently, the External System introduced several new Masters Degrees (including new MBAs from the School of Oriental and African Studies and Royal Holloway), and a BSc in Creative Computing from Goldsmiths.
In North America, Middle East, South Asia and East Asia, many students on the External System seek out tuition at one of the over 200 private or non-profit institutions which prepare students for the University of London examinations. Such institutions may be audited, and if found to meet strict quality standards, may earn the designation of “permission to teach." The Laws Programme of the External System, however, only designates "permission to teach" to institutions which provide face to face teaching for the Diploma in laws.
The designation serves both as a means of signalling to students some degree of quality in the services offered (although the University of London examiners frequently note that they do not wish for pupils to interpret the sanction as such), and secondly designates places which are allowed to offer the undergraduate diplomas in the fields of law and economics (the only courses mandating formal schooling of some sort).
One of the lead colleges, Imperial College London, left the University in July 2007. The School of Oriental and African Studies has become the lead college for the external degrees previously led by Imperial, although Imperial will offer its own distance learning MBA in competition to the two MBAs offered by the External System, led by SOAS and Royal Holloway.
The University of London External System has played an important role in the development of higher education institutions in Britain. Many leading British research universities started out as "university colleges" that prepared students for external degrees of the University of London. Examples include the University of Nottingham and the University of Exeter. This was a common way for establishing new universities in the UK during the first half of the twentieth century.