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Last month the Open University celebrated its 40th anniversary to much fanfare. However, despite the OU’s acknowledged influence on higher education then and since, the institution that started it all was established over 100 years before. So why was The University of London External Program established? And during this era of recession, adult education and online courses – how can our universities continue to learn from the scheme?

The University of London was established in 1836 with the merger of University College London and King’s College London. By 1858, the External Program was founded and Chartered by Queen Victoria, whose reign was establishing a more identifiable Royal Family with which the general public could relate to. The symbolic move to promote higher education opportunities for less-affluent students also came at a time shortly after the establishment of the nationwide postal system – a development that dramatically increased the ease of communication between institutions and the public.

 

 

Affectionately labeled ‘The People’s University’ by Charles Dickens in his magazine, All The Year Round, the University of London broke further ground in 1878 as it became the first university in the UK to allow women to enroll on higher education courses. By the turn of the 20th Century, the institution was the biggest in the country – boasting around 4000 students. And, as if to exemplify the power and worth of distance education even further, soldiers in POW camps were able to study for qualifications during the Second World War.

 

Today, alongside a host of institutions that have been influenced by the scheme and further pushing the development of distance education, The University of London External System continues to serve 40,000 students worldwide. Yet, as a consequence of the global economic crisis, we may be set to see its importance grow.

 

Whereas the University of London External Program broke new ground by offering higher education courses to more people who couldn’t get to London, distance learning institutions today around the world are competing to push accessibility even further. Open content is one area that might be seen to do this over the next year. Although, such schemes have already been rolled out in Paris and the US, the idea has not yet been embraced by all institutions.