University of London External Degrees

(An external degree is a degree offered by a university or a university approved centre to students where the students’ learning takes place outside the direct supervision of the university/college). The external degree is offered alongside the traditional internal degree programmes for those students who can attend the University full time).

External degrees were established by University of London in 1858 and were offered to people who were not able to attend the institutions in London. The degrees were open to people in other cities, or to London based students who had attended evening classes. Across the country approved/accredited colleges including designated university colleges were established. In 1865 overseas centres were approved the first being in Mauritius.

This mode of study is but one of the pioneering achievements of London University – also the first Higher Education Institution in England to admit women to degrees and to offer innovative degrees in engineering and science. Today external degrees still form part of the University’s portfolio of distance learning programmes which has greatly expanded with the advent of information and communication technologies and on-line learning. Currently the University of London External System continues to innovate offering over 100 qualifications many taught using the latest technologies. Approximately 41,000 students from 180 nations pursing external degrees based on 2008 figures. External degrees and study offer real opportunities to students who because of financial, energy and time constraints cannot travel between one’s home town and the University and increasingly for those who are undertaking study with paid employment. Today with the advent of distance and on-line learning the opportunities are greatly increased.

The majority of Higher Education (HE) institutions now offer external learning opportunities but London was the first to offer external degrees. However I want to focus on the award from a personal viewpoint and describe their importance to many students particularly in the mid-1900s when secondary schooling was very different and defined by the tripartite system. Many people are surprised that this mode of study and attendance existed then. So I hope this short account will highlight its importance, recognise the pioneering work of London University and show how the external degrees were managed and operated to benefit many students at that time.

I was an external degree student studying the BSc Special Honours Physics programme between 1962 and 1965 at Portsmouth College of Technology. The college had gained accreditation from London University to offer external degrees both at Special and General level in a wide range of subjects e.g. botany, economics, engineering, physics and sociology, London University deemed that the college possessed the necessary resources and reputation to offer its HE programmes.

Like many individuals who had failed the 11+ Colleges offered me a second chance after leaving Secondary Modern School which in the system of the time did not offer GCE qualifications. Initially I attended the College to take GCE ‘O’ and then ‘A’ levels. Staff at the college then encouraged me to continue my studies by pursuing the Special Honours Physics Degree. Another aspect in my favour was that at the time London University had for a few years in the early 1960s dropped the English ‘O’ level entry requirement for both internal and external students! This shows the role luck can often play in one’s education.

Overall the external degree required the same entry qualifications for all student applicants and the syllabuses were identical. The duration of study period for full-time students was shorter than for part-time students who obviously took longer. All the theory and practical classes were conducted at the College and delivered by the college staff. To complement and reinforce our studies the college offered a series of evening talks on specific scientific topics related to the course given by expert speakers. Finally guest speakers were invited to deliver lectures during the day sessions. In the last year students on the degree course occasionally went to London University to hear specialised lectures from University staff; then the audience comprised both external and internal students.

However students were required to take the Part 1 and the Finals practical examinations and Mathematics for Physics paper at London University. Students from Portsmouth and some overseas students attended Imperial College to take the practical examinations at the end of the second and third years. All the examinations were operated on an unseen basis meaning that the students had no idea of what was going to be asked.

I mention the unseen aspect as subsequently I was told by former internal students that they could often discern or guess what topics could be raised in the examinations from the emphasis their lecturers gave during their lectures. Whether this was true or not would be difficult to prove but after all the University staff did set the papers where as the college staff had no involvement in the examination process. In fact when I applied for post-graduate studies at other universities the admission tutors said how much they rated external degree graduates. Often they would reinforce that view by saying that the degree classification achieved by external students was one grade less than the internal students had gained because of this unseen aspect! Again I cannot verify this perception but the admission tutors quite openly stressed that possibility when extolling the value of the external degree.

The examination regime was quite challenging Part 1 comprised six theory papers plus a number of practical examinations taken in London. The Finals comprised a number of optional papers some with a mathematical emphasis and a six hour practical again taken in London. Even with these challenges I enjoyed the experience of taking an external degree that required a lot of private study and the need to cover the entire given syllabus. The teaching and support staff at Portsmouth were sympathetic and understanding of the problems that 11+ failures could experience. It is important to remember that it was still at that time a relatively rare occurrence for Secondary Modern school leavers to undertake further and higher studies.


(Subsequently Portsmouth College of Technology proved its academic credentials by becoming one of the leading Polytechnics and eventually gained University status in 1992). This progression surely validated its designation as an accredited centre for London University external degrees in the early 1960s.)


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