On the Road with Betsy Woolf: Four London Universities

London universities

An education in London is a bit different than an education in the States. First of all, “university” is only three years. And there is a degree of independence, as universities in the city itself do not necessarily feature lodgings in the immediate vicinity. Of the four schools I visited this trip (I’ve been to a fair number of London area universities in the past), only one has a campus, but even there, students in their 3rd year switch from a campus to an urban community. Certainly, the experience is not for every student, but if you are game and looking for a different, international experience in a vibrant city at a time where a global outlook and understanding are of utmost importance and relevance, checking out the universities in London is a way to gain a new perspective. Especially if you are a student of the humanities.

First, I was off to Richmond, the American International University in London. There are two ways to get to Richmond – the long way and the short way. I went there via the long way – all the way to the end of the District Line of the London underground to the last stop on the line yet still within the city — and came back the fast way – on the commuter train to Waterloo Station from which it was easy to access the underground. The university itself is situated in quiet, residential Richmond Hill, overlooking the Thames River, and it’s an easy cab ride or the 371 bus up the hill to campus. Or you can walk, but it’s a steep hike. It was much better to walk back to the station, which I did, than to walk up the hill. Fortunately, I had made the decision to ride up to campus, and that was the right decision!

What I discovered was a small but very international campus where first and second year students take their studies. This is a liberal arts college of approximately 1600 students, 30% from the US, 25% British and a handful from 58 other countries. Applying to Richmond is a bit of a hybrid, as you can apply via the Common Application and the British UCAS application, and even the school’s own application. According to Michele Gates, the university’s senior recruitment officer, Richmond encourages leadership and is seeking students who have international outlooks and are also very keen on studying and making a difference. The school features areas of study such as international business management, international relations, psychology, political science and film studies, but there aren’t classes in the sciences or engineering.

Third year students move into the urban Knightsbridge section of London to complete their studies. Knightsbridge is a lovely neighborhood that houses the famous department store, Harrods. The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of Natural Sciences, are nearby.


Later that day, I was in a very different place, the University of Westminster, the university where the members of Pink Floyd met and formed a band, moving on beyond their studies of architecture! In fact, the main building on Regent Street is a lovely example of 1920s architecture. That theme is continued in the reception area. But these facades conceal a university where everything else is modern, from the classrooms to the former gym that is now student space to the computer labs to the Deep End, the student activities space that years ago was a swimming pool.

As a U.K. university, Westminster requires students to apply into a particular area of study, and if you are studying a discipline in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, then your three years will be spent based at Regent Street but with the ability to use the facilities of the university’s other three campuses, two of which are in central London.

Most competitive are the programs in fashion design (45 out of 1000 applicants are accepted) and film, Alasdair Chisholm, the course enquiries administrator, told me, which are based on the Harrow campus. The university is also particularly known for its architecture program, which is in the Marylebone section of London in a newly renovated space that includes the business school, about a 20 minute walk from Regent Street, near the Sherlock Holmes Museum and Madam Tussauds Wax Museum. Despite the university’s size – 22,000 students – experiential learning is emphasized.

Where else did I visit on my recent trip to London?

The next day, I took the tube to the Goodge Street station, then took a short walk to New College of the Humanities, where I met with Elke Tinnacher, the head of international recruitment. Just as the name indicates, this is a new school that is about to graduate its first class. Modeled after the academic approach of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, NCH features lectures, small group tutorials and weekly one-to-one tutorials. Right now, there are only 150 students in the school’s townhouse, with another 100 set to arrive in the fall. The college is located on pretty New Bedford Square whose bucolic private garden is accessible to students, as the college does have a key. NCH is located near the British Museum, and students have access to the nearby Student Central (like a Student Union but open to students from any of the colleges within any London University college), the nearby Senate House Library, one of the biggest in the country, and student societies (clubs).

During their first year, all students study critical reasoning; second year, it’s science literacy so they can make connections between the sciences and humanities and understand that other people may think in different way.s The third year, everyone studies ethics. As with Richmond, the focus here is on the Humanities, not the sciences or engineering.

I finished my tours with a visit to SOAS (School for Oriental and Asian Studies), just a few blocks from New College of the Humanities. Again, science and engineering students are out of luck, because SOAS is a higher education institution that specializes in studying Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East. The most popular studies, according to Nick Butler, the student recruitment manager, are law, political science, international relations and development studies. At SOAS, you also can study a wide variety of languages, including Afrikaans and Swahili, Hindi and Sanskrit, Burmese and Thai. There is even a program in global popular music.

Over 50% of students who study at SOAS, an urban campus on Russell Square, hail from outside the United Kingdom. Many are pursuing a dual degree, or what we in the US would refer to as a double major.

If you don’t want to spend three years studying in London, you can still take advantage of a study abroad semester or year or a summer experience in London. I believe that travel is broadening. As Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”