Launch Event for Generation UCL: 200 Years of Student Life in London

Generation UCL
Generation UCL

The countdown to UCL’s 2026 bicentenary has begun. ’Generation UCL’ asks what if we put the lived experiences of students and alumni at the heart of UCL’s story?

The following two reports by our UCL student journalists introduce the new Generation UCL project to our wider community. Part of our bicentennial celebrations and a deep investigation into UCL’s history, Generation UCL puts students front and centre, using oral history to capture the voices and memories of alumni - both recent as well as many more decades in the past. 

The countdown to UCL’s 2026 bicentenary has begun. On 17th June, a new research and engagement project, ’Generation UCL’, was launched. The project seeks to ask a key question: What if we put the lived experiences of students and alumni at the heart of UCL’s story? Spearheaded by Dr Georgina Brewis (Associate Professor in the History of Education at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society) and Dr Sam Blaxland (Generation UCL Research Fellow), the project will explore 200 years of student life and culture in London, turning institutional history upside down to suggest that the first students of 1828 should be seen as the real founders of UCL.  

The launch event took place at the newly refurbished Old Refectory, now known as the Object Based Learning Laboratory. On a sweltering afternoon, colleagues from the History Department, The IOE, UCL Culture, Records, Special Collections, as well as distinguished alumni, gathered among ancient terracotta, animal specimens and various other UCL artefacts. The air-conditioned room buzzed with chatter, and an air of nostalgia was palpable. The event began with a warm welcome by Professor Dame Hazel Genn, who is a Professor of Socio-Legal studies, director of the UCL Centre for Access to Justice Institute, and outgoing Vice President of External Engagement at UCL. Dr Brewis, director of Generation UCL, then outlined the motivation behind Generation UCL, providing an overview of its potential outputs. They include: an open access book with UCL Press, an Octagon exhibition beginning in late summer 2023, and a programme of impact and engagement activities to involve the whole UCL community.  

In the course of Dr Brewis’ talk, it became apparent that in addition to marking UCL’s bicentenary, the project will serve several important historic functions. UCL has been understudied by historians, despite its reputation for encouraging disruptive thinking. This project will help address that. Being the first university in England to welcome students of any religion or social background, and the first to welcome women to university education, UCL made higher education affordable and accessible to a broad section of society. Other prestigious universities have a large number of books written on their history, whereas UCL has not been so well served. The World of UCL, the key institutional history, has been updated several times but it remains a broad overview and more of a coffee table book. Generation UCL will seek to write a completely new scholarly history. 

This will be done by using the archival records held by UCL, which include student diaries, letters, autobiographies, and student newspapers. These paint rich, idiosyncratic pictures of life at UCL. Generation UCL is also set to establish the first major collection of 120+ oral history interviews with UCL students and alumni, to preserve student voices and memories. In his talk, Dr Blaxland shared some insights into how this part of the project was developing. He discussed how he had interviewed a Slade School of Fine Art alumnus and artist, Diana Armfield. The audience heard a clip of her fondly remembering the first time she met her husband whilst studying during the Second World War. She recalled their eyes meeting as they looked up to sketch a model in a life drawing class. 

The final collection of oral history interviews will be broad, diverse, and encompass all of UCL, including the merged institutions. Interviews with younger alumni will play an important role in reflecting the diversity of the institution today. Generation UCL will also support the deposit of Students’ Union material with UCL Special Collections. This includes, for example, clothing, medals and trophies, plans and maps. An initiative that Dr Blaxland expressed particular excitement for was the digitisation of UCL film society’s archive reels, which may prove to be a unique source of audio-visual history about the institution during different time periods. 

Concluding the launch event was Lord Tom McNally, UCL Economics and History alumnus, ex Debating Society Vice-President and Students Union President (1965-66). Lord McNally shared highlights from his youthful days as a student in London. These include the time when he persuaded former Prime Minister Clement Attlee to come and speak to around 800 students packed into the Upper Refectory, only for Atlee to arrive hours late with complaints from his wife about Tottenham Court Road being one-way. There was mention of facing an angry mob of teenagers trying to enter one of the university’s Saturday night hops. He also stressed the value of a democratically elected Students Union which can stand up for student rights, as he did on several occasions when students had been disciplined by their departments. He reflected on the notions of tolerance, freedom of ideas and anti-war protests, but also made evident the glass ceilings that were in place for women, LGBTQ+ people, and minorities. 

The event came to an end with afternoon tea in the Haldane Room. It was a unique opportunity for different groups within UCL such as academics, students, union representatives, facility managers, and many more to collectively reflect on the history of this institution, which means a lot to so many people. With a piano playing music in the background, people had the opportunity to eat cake and look out into the Quad on a beautiful summer’s day. Watching students sitting in the sun, talking with one another, it was possible to imagine past generations doing something very similar. With continuing expansion of the Generation UCL project through student projects and preservation of student artefacts, future generations may have the historical resources to see for themselves what student life was like years before them. 

In the lead up to UCL’s bicentenary in 2026, a new research and engagement project has been launched. Aiming to recentre students as the founders of UCL, Generation UCL is a multifaceted project led by Dr. Georgina Brewis, John Dubber and Research Fellow Dr. Sam Blaxland. I was asked to cover the launch event on Thursday 16th June 2022. Being a student of UCL since 2014 (MSci and now PhD), the outline of this project and the work they are doing really resonated with me. As a huge part of my adult life, UCL has really shaped me as a person. For this reason, I was intrigued to attend the official launch event and understand more about ’turning institutional history on its head’. 

The Old Refectory hosted an afternoon of speakers and the event began with Professor Dame Hazel Genn (Pro-Provost, Bicentennial at UCL) introducing the project, placing particular emphasis on putting students at the centre of the institution’s history. All those who attended have a strong interest in the history of UCL, including IOE colleagues, alumni, members of the history department and Special Collections, as well as the Estates team. It seemed everyone was keen and proud to be associated with UCL, with several having made the journey across London, back to their old stomping ground. 

Historically known as the ’godless institution on Gower street’, Professor Genn noted that the first demonstration at UCL was in 1830, when biomedical students protested against their anatomy Professor’s questionable lecturing. Such moments are discussed in the book The World of UCL, the most recent edition of which was published in 2018. Dr Georgina Brewis was responsible for updating the latest version, but as she expressed at the event, a coffee table book like this can only do so much. Hence as part of the project, a co-authored book on UCL’s history will be published, incorporating the history of the Student Union. 

Dr Georgina Brewis is an Associate Professor in History of Education at IOE. She is also the co-lead of the Generation UCL project and she introduced the audience to the lack of academic research about UCL. Despite our nearly 200 years of history, the shelves occupied by the academic history of the university of London (not just UCL) make up just one in the IOE library, compared to six for Oxford. There is a hole! 

As an enormously influential university, which allowed a wider portion of society into higher education and therefore shaped student life in London at the beginning of the 19th century, UCL’s history is of real importance. Celebrating the centenary, UCL received letters of congratulations from other universities around the globe, including Cambridge and Harvard - acknowledgement and recognition of the value that this university holds. The idea is to regain this value in today’s busy higher education market. 

While huge amounts of student records are held by UCL, there is a call for any personal testimonies , memoirs and letters that discuss student life, as well as material culture, like clothing etc. 

As a way of building this history of student life through sources, Dr. Sam Blaxland (Generation UCL Research Fellow) introduced the oral history side of the project, highlighting the process of interviewing someone, recording it and then preserving it forever as a future resource. The project is already underway , with the aim to interview at least 120 people from across time periods, subject areas, and a diverse range of backgrounds. With six interviews undertaken so far, clips from two UCL alumni were played to attendees. Bringing another story to life, Diana Armfield, a previous student of UCL, aged 102 years talked about her experience of the Slade School of Fine Art (evacuated to Oxford while she was studying, because of the Second World War) and how she met her husband of 70 years. The feeling conveyed, perfectly encapsulated why this project is essential for UCL. 

A second clip from an interview with Stuart Richman, who studied at UCL in the early 1960s whilst living at his family home in London, demonstrated the potential oral history has to open up discussions about themes like class, race and politics. The fact that Stuart’s mother used to host many of his university friends was a small insight into the blurred boundaries between home and college life in this period. 

The final speaker of the event was Lord Tom McNally , Lib Dem peer and former justice minister who studied at UCL from 1963-1966 and has also been interviewed by Sam for the oral history element of Generation UCL. He jovially began his reminiscences warning of the danger of inviting ’old timers to address about their times’, with everyone instantly warming to him.   

Speaking about being accepted to study at ’UC’, he commented on a conversation set up between the labour manager at his Father’s company and himself, being the first in his family to go to university and feeling wildly underprepared. Of the advice given, the pinnacle was to ’join three societies’. He did so and ended up as president of the Debating Society. Between 1965-66 he was also President of the Students’ Union. 

He spoke with nostalgia and pride about UCL, wearing his old blue and purple tie from the mid-1960s. Lord McNally rounded off with the final part of a full-circle, poignant anecdote about a foundation debating society event, which hosted an old Lord Attlee as the guest of honour. Comparing his own hands to how "Lord Attlee’s must’ve looked then," he recited Attlee’s words about how the "British gift to political discourse is the gift of tolerance". The willingness to listen to the other side of the argument. This is something he believes true for UCL: "we were never the godless institution in Gower Street, we were the tolerant institution in Gower Street". 

Whilst there were problems (sexism and homophobia were mentioned specifically), the progressive nature of UCL is part of its history. This emphasises perfectly the gap ready to be filled by the work of Generation UCL, and the determination to undertake a project that covers a broad and diverse range of people from different countries and subjects, all with one common experience as UCL students. 

Over scones, tea and prosecco, I approached a retired economics lecturer, Rosalind Levacic, who also attended UCL in the 1960s. During questions, she had commented on the rapid pace of social change in the 1960s which, as a student, had seemed to pass her by. Likewise, Frances Lefford drew my attention to women’s stories tying into student life, and the changing nature of these social norms. Her medical studies began in 1952, and she later completed her PhD here. The parallel between our journeys through UCL intrigued me - now in my eighth year of studying here, 60 years behind her. 

Lord McNally had mentioned that the glass ceiling for women was ’low and thick’, and exploration of Frances’ experience through the upcoming interview will provide further personal insight into this. I think that’s the beauty of the oral history part of the project. There is so much potential for Generation UCL to capture the testimonies of people whose voices are not normally heard in institutional histories. 

By bringing a wide range of people together, igniting a passion for the history of the institution that 45,000 students are currently part of, Generation UCL is putting past and present students centre stage. The students of the last 200 years have been at the heart of UCL and helped make it the tolerant institution on Gower Street. 


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