I took this photo in the middle of all the anti-fees protests at the end of last term: a bit of graffiti on the door of the UCL History Department states “no entry to the poor”.
I’m posting it because UCL is 185 years old today.
Walking around the campus earlier, there didn’t seem to be any signs of a birthday celebration. But I think it is worth marking, and not just because it’s where I did my BSc. I may joke that KCL smells of wee, but I’ve never really understood territorial cheer-leading for one’s alma mater. No, I think everyone involved in English Higher Education should celebrate UCL’s birthday, because it many respects it is a birthday for us all.
As a recent Guardian editorial put it, UCL was established to “break the stranglehold of Oxford and Cambridge”. Up until 1826, England was limited to just these two universities. This not only meant a university education was available to the very few, but fostered a certain amount of elitist complacency which meant you effectively had to be a wealthy male Anglican to study for a degree in England. The whole point of UCL was to open up education in England. This is why that bit of graffiti above is quite so poignant. Open up education it did, as other universities sparked off across the country (some more to balance the seeming radicalism of UCL as much as follow it, granted… told you KCL smells of wee).
UCL was the first higher education institution in England to accept students of any race or religious or political belief, and the first to accept women on equal terms with men. It was also the first in England to establish a students’ union. Importantly, breaking the two-university culture of England meant new subjects could flourish too. There was a greater intellectual freedom as well as social freedom breathed into English academia with the birth of UCL, and it was the first university to have professorships in chemical engineering, chemistry, electrical engineering, geography, many major modern European languages (including English), psychology, and zoology. Although it is also worth noting that UCL doesn’t have theology, music or politics departments because these subjects were associated with the forms of social segregation they aimed to avoid. KCL has, something UCL students have long parodied, stealing “this way to the theology department” signs to decorate their union with.
(you can read more in the wikipedia page on UCL’s history).
The drama of the anti-fees protests may have died down a bit since last term, but as the government seem set on privatising our university system and we all start to think more and more about fair access, the birth of UCL is well worth marking.