Introduction - University of Sunderland

Sunderland - a dynamic, modern university with high standards of teaching and research and a growing reputation as the university for enterprise, employment and opportunity. Our ambitious city is a great place to live and work – right at the heart of the buzzing North East of England.

Sunderland is a breath of fresh air, with a stunning coastline and breathtaking countryside nearby as well as all the nightlife, leisure and cultural opportunities you’d expect from a major city. Sunderland has an international outlook and students from across the globe choose to study with us - either on campus or on our accredited programmes in partner institutions.


The University’s modern roots lie in Sunderland Technical College, which opened at the Galen Building in Green Terrace in 1901. The local Taxation and Customs and Excise Act of 1890 paved the way for the new College, which was paid for from so-called ‘whiskey money’ at a cost of £27,800.

From the outset, the College had much in common with today’s University. It enjoyed considerable support from local industry and from key public figures such as Mr Samuel Storey MP and councillor Dr Robert Gordon Bell, the first Chairman of Governors.

The Principal, Mr Branford, was Sunderland’s Director of Higher Education and was also responsible for the School of Art and the new Bede Collegiate School. From the start, the intention was to develop capacity and quality in order to achieve University College status.

The dynamic new College was the first in England to introduce the ‘sandwich course’ – enabling engineering apprentices to gain higher qualifications whilst working. By 1908, 25 engineering firms were involved in the scheme. The concept of educational progression, familiar nowadays, was already in place by 1910, when evening classes were re-structured to allow specialist study after two preliminary years.

The first great surge of expansion took place between 1919 and 1939. The Galen Building was extended between 1922 and 1930, supported by both private and public funding. In 1939, the industrialist Sir John Priestman opened the Priestman Library, with room for 10,000 books.

The building was also home to the departments of mathematics and mining. In 1921-22, departments of naval architecture and pharmacy were introduced. The pharmacy department began as a single bench in the chemistry department, but grew to become the largest in the country. The department’s pioneer was a remarkable scientist, Miss Hope CM Winch. Growth in quality was soon reflected in affiliation to the University of Durham in 1930. The London University BSc pharmacy was introduced in the same year and the College was recognised by London University as a centre for its Beng (Bachelor of Engineering) in 1934.

During the Second World War, the College ran special courses for the armed forces and the Ministry of Labour. By 1946, the College had 59 full-time staff, 175 part-time assistants, 840 full and part-time students and 1,485 evening class students. New course development in the post-war period included the department of housecrafts, recognition of the ‘…modern woman’s realisation that she must have appropriate training if she is to play her part more effectively in her chosen trade, profession or in the home…’

The late 1950s saw further expansion as the College sought the status of College of Advanced Technology. As the Technical College concentrated on advanced teaching, the two local colleges of further education took over most of the non-advanced work. The College was the first educational centre in the region to install a digital computer. This hi-tech innovation required a crane to haul it through the roof of the building in which it was housed – a far cry from today’s laptops and palmtops.

In 1959, an ambitious building programme began, culminating in the opening of a new complex of buildings on Chester Road by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1964.

These developments meant that Sunderland’s Technical College was the first in the region to offer residential accommodation – at £5 per week half board. By then there were 1,750 full and part-time students, and the College was the largest of 25 regional colleges. In the mid-1960s, Sunderland had the largest Norwegian student body outside Norway itself, some 260 students - many of them taking marine engineering.

Sunderland Polytechnic was created on January 1, 1969, with a new department of education, for teacher training, established in the same year. The Polytechnic was among the first three of the 30 such national institutions, which were set up to concentrate on professional and vocational courses and develop part-time provision.

The Polytechnic brought together the Technical College with two other institutions which had played a significant role in the town - the School of Art and, later, Sunderland Teacher Training College.

The School of Art had been established in 1901 and classes were run in the Town Hall. As well as a fine art curriculum, it also ran classes in painting and decorating, stone and wood carving, photography, millinery and dressmaking. The industrial classes grew rapidly as employers paid fees for many of the students. In 1934, the College of Arts and Crafts moved to new accommodation in Ashburne House, donated by TW Backhouse.

By 1960 there were more than 1,000 students and, in 1963, the re-designated College of Art began to offer a degree-equivalent diploma in art and design and fine art. In 1982, Sunderland established the UK’s first degree course in glass design and it remains a leading European centre for glass design and research.

The Teacher Training College had opened in 1908, with 70 students, male and female, and tuition fees of £10 per annum. Staff included a sergeant major to teach ‘Swedish drill’. In 1922, students moved into Langham Tower in Ryhope Road, bought by the Corporation for £8,000. At the same time the College became ‘women only’ and remained that way until 1959. Under its last principal, Mr H Armstrong James, the Teacher Training College reached its zenith with 820 students and 80 staff.

By 1968, the Technical College ran the first interdisciplinary undergraduate degree programme outside the university sector, a BSc materials science. In 1973, it mounted the first part-time, in-service BEd (Bachelor of Education) in the country. By 1980, the student body had leapt to 2,294 full-time and sandwich students and 1,446 part-time students.

In 1990, Dr Anne Wright was appointed Rector at Sunderland. She then became one of the first female university Vice-Chancellors when the Polytechnic gained university status in 1992. In the same year, HM The Queen granted Sunderland city status to mark the 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne.

In 1993, HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh visited Sunderland and the University to celebrate. Her Majesty met University staff and saw plans for the flagship St Peter’s Campus development, which has made a significant contribution to Sunderland’s regeneration.

In September 2002 the campus was renamed the Sir Tom Cowie Campus at St Peter’s, in honour of the Sunderland businessman who is one of the University’s most loyal supporters and in celebration of Sir Tom’s 80th birthday. The £50m campus is now home to about half of the University’s total student population of well over 14,000. Sunderland Business School opened here in 1994 and the spectacular David Goldman Informatics Centre followed two years later. In March 2004 the £9m Media Centre was launched by Minister for the Arts (now University Pro Vice-Chancellor) Baroness Estelle Morris.

The Sir Tom Cowie Campus at St Peter’s plays a significant community and regional role. The 400-seat Sir Tom Cowie Lecture Theatre has hosted international conferences and community musical concerts as well as student lectures; and the new Media Centre’s state-of-the-art 200 seater cinema recently played host to a major audio-visual festival.

In 1998, the Oscar-winning film producer David (now Lord) Puttnam became the University’s first Chancellor in a memorable ceremony at St Peter’s Campus. Lord Puttnam visits Sunderland regularly to officiate at key events, including graduation ceremonies, as well as leading workshops for students and acting as an outstanding ambassador for the University.

Professor Peter Fidler became the current Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive in April 1999, joining the University from Oxford Brookes University. As well as leading efforts to enhance the University’s growing reputation for high quality teaching and research, Professor Fidler contributes to regional regeneration as a member of several North-East development bodies.

For over a century Sunderland has frequently set the pace in higher education. The University continues to look forward. The new Media Centre provides the latest teaching, research and commercial facilities for subjects including TV, radio, video and new media production, journalism, PR, film, media and cultural studies. Sunderland aims to become an international powerhouse for the creative industries, with the new centre at its heart.

In September 2006 the new £3.5m Gateway development opened at the City Campus. This one-stop-shop allows students to access a wide range of university services and academic support all in one place.

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