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Birkbeck's bicentenary reveals a bold history

Commemorations for Birkbeck’s 200th anniversary have been taking place throughout 2023, marking the College’s illustrious and unconventional history and its incredible impact on the UK higher education landscape

pic of London Mechanics' Institute Southampton Buildings

Two hundred years ago, in December 1823, the London Mechanics’ Institution was formally created with the stated aim of educating working people, following a pivotal point the month before when George Birkbeck spoke to a packed tavern of 2000 people on the importance of educating the working people of London.

The College’s inception would revolutionise London’s education system and open education prospects for artisans and craftspeople, yet George Birkbeck was accused of “scattering the seeds of evil”. Undeterred, he called his supporters to action and proceeded with his radical new vision, saying: “Now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge.”

Preparations to commemorate the College’s rich and distinct history began a few years ago and included the announcement of a new 200th anniversary themed logo, in 2019, to sit alongside the corporate logo. Last year, eight portraits (Birkbeck ‘Effects’) were installed on the ground floor of the College’s main campus to showcase Birkbeck people who’ve made significant contributions to wider society. The Birkbeck Effects have been rotated on the College website throughout 2023, with a complete list set to be published by the official anniversary, on 2 December.

Earlier this year, a new history book, Birkbeck: 200 years of Radical Learning for Working People, which chronicles Birkbeck’s remarkable history, received its official launch with many of Birkbeck’s community, past and present, in attendance. Its author, Professor Emerita Joanna Bourke presents a history of how the College contributed to the shaping of modern British higher education alongside a history of life and culture in London over the past two centuries, exploring questions such as "what does it mean to be educated? and "how can education help us become self-fulfilled and better people?"

Professor David Latchman, Vice-Chancellor, said, “Birkbeck’s bicentenary is a momentous occasion for us all. It fills us with great pride to reflect on two hundred years of immense contribution to higher education learning with magnificent people who have shared the vision of creating opportunities for people who would otherwise not have been able to study.

“The College’s impact on society is vast, including pioneering research in the areas of computer science and space exploration, significant contributions to the worlds of politics, business, sports and much more. Birkbeck was and continues to be a transformative institution.

“As we commemorate our two hundredth year, we find ourselves at a juncture to be able to reflect on our radical history and seek to reinvent ourselves in response to the changing needs of students. We are deeply honoured to have reached this milestone.”

For the past two centuries Birkbeck has offered a unique way to study, with evening lectures making it possible for students to work, or pursue other daytime commitments, while they learn. It remains London’s only evening university and has been lauded for its programmes for migrant communities, achieving University of Sanctuary status in 2021, the first in London to do so, and measures highly for its impact on advancing the social mobility of its graduating students. Birkbeck also continues to place a commitment to research excellence at the core of its mission; with research viewed as fundamental for student learning and discovery; and for the employment and future careers of its graduates.



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