The University of Birmingham was one of the UK's first 'redbrick'1 universities, and the oldest of the three universities in the city. The main campus can be found to the south of Birmingham city centre, dividing the Edgbaston and Selly Oak areas of the city. There's a satellite campus a few miles away in Selly Oak, which is the site for part time courses, and the BBC's Drama Village where Doctors and other TV programmes are filmed.
The main university campus is centred around Chancellor's Court, a collection of attractive Victorian Buildings made out of red bricks arranged around 'Old Joe' or the Joseph Chamberlain Clock Tower, which at 360ft/100m dominates the University campus. The design is based on Torre del Mangia tower in Seina, Tuscany, and it is one of Birmingham's landmarks. There is a rumour that if you walk underneath while it's striking then you'll fail your degree. Opposite the Clock Tower is Great Hall - the site of terrifying finals2 and graduation ceremonies, which also features a War Memorial. Many a student, nervously waiting for a final exam, has stared at the names of students who never got to sit their finals and has contemplated that things could be worse.
The majority of the teaching takes place in newer buildings on the outskirts of the University. Of these the Muirhead Tower, on the outskirts of campus, has the infamous status of being one of the most ugly Buildings in the university. Built in 1967, it was initially praised for its architectural innovativeness and it has been awarded Grade II listed building status. It remains one of the least popular buildings on the campus due to its unattractive concrete appearance, its height, and the lack of space in lifts and stairs, especially at times when one lecture finishes and another starts. Many rumours about the Muirhead Tower circulate among the students, including that it was built at the wrong angle, so it may blow down any day, and that it was a Civil Engineering student's dissertation project. None of these are true.
Also on campus is the exceptionally good Barber Institute of Fine Arts, a wonderful small art gallery containing works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Gainsbrough and Turner, among others. Remarkably this wonderful treasure is almost always empty, often it's just you and the Monet.3
The Campus also usefully possesses a doctor's surgery, a Waterstone's bookshop carrying an excellent range of academic textbooks, four different banks, and the University Sports Centre. The University also owns the Botanical Gardens which are well worth a visit.
Birmingham is the only university in the UK to have its own railway station - University4, which is ten minutes from Birmingham's main railway station, New Street. Trains run every ten minutes.
The Academic Side
Birmingham University aims to be the 'Oxbridge of the Midlands'. The Times University Guide placed it as the 23rd best University in the country in 2005. Like many universities, the larger subjects are taught mainly in lectures to large groups of students, often of 200 or more - this rather limits the chance for debate, though there are some small group tutorials as well. Some students find that there is little opportunity to build a personal relationship with their tutor. It's not unknown for a student to simply stop attending lectures, and nobody to notice until they don't turn up for their exams, or fail to hand coursework in. That said, this is no different from many other universities and the teaching is consistently ranked as 'good quality' in the Times University Guide and other rankings. As a large university, Birmingham offers courses in virtually every subject you can think of.
Sciences and Engineering
Birmingham is a city that for most of its life has relied on engineering for its livelihood; the university itself was formed out of Mason Science College, and the first schools to be established were in the sciences. So it's not surprising that the main focus of the university seems to be on the sciences and engineering. A visitor may be surprised to find that mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and chemical engineering each have bigger premises than the entire arts department. The quality of the teaching is often rated as high in comparison to other universities; in fact in 2004 the Times Good University Guide rated the mathematics department as the fifth best in the country and most of the other science departments feature in the top 20 in their subject. The majority of the research takes place in sciences as well. The medical school has recently doubled in size, and now has 500 students in a year.
While there are fewer arts students in terms of numbers, there is an active arts department. Students who hope to get into media are actively involved in the student radio and television stations, and the student newspaper, Redbrick. Many students who are on courses with smaller numbers benefit from more personal contact with the tutors.
The academic standards at Birmingham are in general fairly high, with nearly all courses requiring a minimum of three grade Bs at A-Level.
Living in Birmingham - as a Student
The university-owned halls of residence are a short distance from the main campus, the closest being a five-minute walk away, whereas the furthest afield is a ten-minute bus ride away. Most of the halls are clustered together in 'The Vale', around a lake. They include catered halls where food is provided during the week5, and self-catering halls, which are more like blocks of flats with five students sharing one kitchen.
Catered or Self-catering?
Catered halls can be more sociable as everyone will mix together at mealtimes. In self-catering halls sometimes everyone sticks to their own flat and tends to socialise in their kitchen or lounge. If you are capable of buying fresh food and cooking it yourself it usually works out cheaper to stay in self-catering halls.
Depending on who else is on your corridor/flat or whether you are a sociable person, living in halls can either be the best year of your life or a living nightmare. The university has realised that some parents of students are willing to pay extra for good quality student accommodation. This means that some of the newer halls are far too expensive for those students who don't get a parental subsidy. Even students who are on a budget but who stretch themselves to have an expensive hall of residence will find that most of the other students are very well-off, and most of the social life will involve going out and spending lots of money. Part of university life has traditionally been living in grotty accommodation and you are going to be in enough debt anyway without wasting your money on having a private bathroom. In any case, why on earth would you mind sharing a bathroom with four other people? You still only use it one at a time6.
The Different Halls
- Chamberlain and Shackleton Halls
The two largest halls of residence are in The Vale, along with most of the self-catering halls, they are both large concrete buildings, which don't look particularly attractive on the outside. Shackleton Hall has recently been refurbished, now with some en suite rooms, and even some 'self-contained studio apartments'7. Food for both halls is served in The Hub in Shackleton Hall, where there are also bars, shops and a laundrette. The Hub has recently taken over from the Guild of Students as 'the place to be on Fridays' with many ex-students coming back on Saturday night.
Interestingly Chamberlain Hall is named after Joseph Chamblerlain, famous university benefactor and mayor of Birmingham. Shackleton Hall was formed when Lake and Wyddrington Hall merged, and it was named after a former hall president who was stabbed to death after chasing an intruder out of the hall.
- Tennis Court, Maple Bank and Elgar Court
These halls are all situated on the Vale and are very similar - walking distance from the university and near to the city centre. The flats consist of five or six bedrooms, a kitchen and a lounge. There are no cleaners, so the state of your kitchen depends on who else is living there. Elgar Court is the newest and therefore in the best state of repair, Maple Bank is the oldest. At some of these Halls you can purchase a 'meal plan' meaning that you can get all of your evening meals during term time in The Hub in Shackleton Hall. This is rather expensive and it would be far cheaper to learn to cook yourself.
In general, living on the Vale is great if you want to meet lots of students and be an easy walk from the University.
- Manor House
Manor House is a lovely old building - the former home of the Cadbury Family, it's nicely done up and has a good community spirit. It has the disadvantage of being a bit further way from the university in Northfield, and most students have to take a bus into the university.
- The Beeches
Small and friendly, with only 240 residents, the Beeches is the cheapest option at the University. It's a 30-minute walk from the campus but has the advantage of being very close to the city centre so you can walk back from town after a night out. It would suit students who don't want to do all their socialising with students and want somewhere near to the city centre.
- Hunter Court
Much like the Beeches but with en suite bathrooms and therefore more expensive, Hunter Court is a 30-minute walk to university, but only a 20-minute walk into the city centre. It's also near the Cricket Ground and Cannon Hill Park, which gives it a different atmosphere from the other halls.
- Ashcroft, Oakley Court and The Spinney
These halls are all very near to campus and are modern self-catering halls in a good state of repair. Expensive though.
- Jarrett Hall and Douper Hall
These are new, self-catering and en suite halls located in the Selly Oak area, the place where most of the students who live off-campus base themselves. Lots of pubs are nearby, as is the university, and the halls are in a good state of repair. They are also all very expensive though of very good quality.
All freshers8 who put Birmingham as their first choice and don't live in Birmingham are guaranteed a place in a hall of residence, of some sort. If you can't afford the more expensive halls a quiet word with the Housing Office may help. There is usually enough space for all students who want to be able to stay in halls of residence; some stay for their entire degree.
Most students do meet other people in halls and choose to move out into a shared house for their second and third years at university. The nearby suburb of Selly Oak is full of small terraced houses which have been adapted for three or four students. Most of them have two or three bedrooms upstairs and the front downstairs room is converted into an extra bedroom downstairs. There are some larger houses which are suitable for five or six students and very few places for two students to share in Selly Oak. The quality ranges from dreadful to excellent and the prices range from reasonable to ridiculous. Selly Oak is centred around the Bristol Road which is, unsurprisingly, the road to Bristol. The bars and pubs are definitely aimed at students; there are cheap supermarkets, takeaway and shops open all night selling convenience food. The most memorable parts of your time at Birmingham are likely to involve some of the highlights of Selly Oak.
One of the highlights of Selly Oak is its string of Balti Houses, ranging from the excellent to the slightly dodgy - all are very affordable. At 2006 prices you can get an excellent filling meal in a restaurant for around £8, usually including a free onion bhaji. Many of the restaurants are unlicensed, so they don't sell alcohol - but you can buy your own from many reasonably-priced local off-licences. Many a student arrives in Birmingham saying 'I don't really like curry' and leaves reminiscing about endless such meals in Selly Oak.
Curry is there when you want to take your parents away from your kitchen, when your housemates have run out of food and for when your student society wants to take a break from rehearsing/campaigning/student politics. Curry is still there when you've got back from clubbing and they don't bar you if you pass out at your table.
Curry isn't the only form of nutrition available in Selly Oak.
Helpfully situated just off the main Bristol Road directly opposite one of the largest pubs in Selly Oak, Kebabland is fondly remembered by many students for providing kebabs at just the right time of night. This is when the pubs are closing and their blood-alcohol level has convinced them that kebabs are an important part of a healthy diet.
Fish, chips and other things too. If you decide to rent the flat above this centre of culinary excellence you are entitled to half-price fish and chips all year.
The Selly Sausage
A greasy spoon with a licence, a Guardian, Times, Independent, and DJs in the evenings. Good food, including all day breakfasts and proper meals as well - and for dessert there are some excellent pancakes.
The 24-Hour Tesco
The petrol station on Bristol Road possesses one of Selly Oak's most useful features - a 24-hour supermarket. It's there to provide inhabitants of Selly Oak with the essentials of life - the ingredients of a fry-up after a night of drinking or Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream when you've been dumped at three in the morning. It also supplies Red Bull at any time of night9.
Selly Oak's chain of takeaway pizza outlets are engaged in fierce competition. In fact you are unlikely to find a cheaper pizza anywhere else; currently it's about half the price of buying a frozen pizza from a supermarket.
Selly Oak boasts many pubs, all remarkably similar as they tend to be full of students drinking cheap alcohol and eating cheap food. The Gun Barrels and the Bristol Pear are part of the 'It's a Scream' chain. The Goose at the OVT doesn't always have music on so it's useful if you want a chat. The Soak has leather sofas and a generally more fashionable décor.
Sports and Social Life
Sports are a big deal at Birmingham University; every undergraduate course has Wednesday afternoon off in order that they can take part in sports. The university sports teams, which cover everything from archery to windsurfing, regularly compete in Inter-university Championships, and are often ranked highly. There's also the Active Lifestyles Programme - classes for people who want to try a new sport, which are quite friendly. The University Sports Centre has very good facilities but costs extra to join; if you are the sort of person who tends to go to a gym twice in January it can work out cheaper to use the City Council-run gym in Selly Oak. Their sports teams have an active social life and can often be seen drinking in fancy dress in local bars.
The Guild of Students used to be the place to be seen in the evening, but has recently been usurped by the bar in Shackleton Hall and the local pubs which can offer cheaper drinks. This is a shame because the Guild of Students funds many Student Societies, and gives students a chance to go gliding, parachuting, volunteer in the local community, go mountain-climbing and many other things that are much easier to take up at university. The Guild itself was one of the first purpose-built student unions in the country and now has two bars and a nightclub, as well as numerous catering outlets during the day.
The Guild of Students is run by sabbatical10 officers who are elected by the students every year. They then take a year out of their studies to run the Guild. Many of them hope that it will be a stepping stone into a political career. They are kept in check by a large council of Guide Users, one representative from each department, plus the student societies.
Birmingham has an impressive list of former students: Sir Paul Nurse, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine for insights into the cell cycle,11 who is currently director of Cancer UK; Dr Moira Bruce, a leading expert in BSE; Dr Desmond Morris, Zoologist and author of The Naked Ape; the late Dr David Kelly the government scientist; and Holocaust surviour Paul Oppenheimer.
Birmingham has also produced other notable types: Who Wants to be a Millionare presenter Chris Tarrant; Simon Le Bon, lead singer of Duran Duran; comedienne Victoria Wood; Phillippa Forrester and Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe.
History of the University
Birmingham University was formed out of Mason Science College, established by the metal-plating pioneer Josiah Mason in 1875. Soon it was joined by departments in chemistry, botany, physics and the existing medical school.
The medical school was established by Mr John Tomlinson, the first surgeon to the Birmingham Workhouse Infirmary, when he organised a series of lectures on the subject of Anatomy in 1779: the first to be held in England outside of London. In 1825, William Sands Cox, who had partly trained in Birmingham, began teaching 19 students in his father's house. This gradually grew into a medical school and expanded into what was to become known as Queen's College. After falling into financial difficulties it became the Queen's Faculty of Medicine, in Mason Science College.
The transfer of the Medical School to Mason Science College was a significant move for the college and shortly afterwards it was incorporated as a university college and had the power to validate its own degrees. Until this point, it had prepared students for external degrees in London. The Right Honorable Joseph Chamberlain became the President of the Board of Governors. In 1900 his campaigning paid off and the university was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria.
The land the university currently stands on was granted by the Calthorpe Family. The first departments moved to the new Edgbaston site in 1909, and the modern university was born.