Monthly Archive for December, 2005

Resisting censorship…

Heard the Word of Blog?

If you’ve no idea what the above link is about try one of the following news reports:

Simon Jenkins hits the nail on the head… almost!

UCL have wasted no time in publishing Simon Jenkin’s opinion piece, The Battle of Bloomsbury: “If I were UCL…” from yesterday’s Guardian on the front page of their web site.

The gist of the article is fairly succinctly surmised by the first eight words of his opening sentence: “The University of London is a pointless institution that has let Bloomsbury become steeped in squalor”. As the second half of the sentence suggests, the article is not purely concerned with academia. This being Jenkins, the article focusses on the architectural neglect of Bloomsbury (something that I have become acutely aware of since I began studying here).

The imepetus for Jenkin’s article, it seems, is Imperial College’s impending announcement to secede from the University. Incidentally, whilst ULU hacks and the like seem to have only just started getting excited about this the ‘in-principle’ decision was actually made at the July meeting of IC’s governing Council [minutes], whilst I was still President. The Guardian had spotted it back then in an opportunistic report by Polly Curtis, their Education Correpsondent, but it appeared to have been forgetten. Since then Imperial have done the consultation with staff and students, found support for the plans and will firmly go ahead.

Jenkins suggests that IC’s decision will prompt UCL, LSE and King’s to follow-suit precipitating the end of the University of London. And this is what I want to address in this blog.

Jenkins’ portrayal of the University of London as a mission-less institution seeking a reason to exist is accurate. But his analysis of how the Colleges will deal with this situation (and Imperial’s decision to secede) is flawed.

Funnily enough I am now a UCL students’ representative and was present at the meeting of UCL’s Academic Board (equivalent of a university senate) which earlier this week agreed to recommend to UCL Council that the College begin negotiations with the University of London to exercise its degree awarding powers, whilst remaining in the University. And, with the possible exception of LSE, this is all I see happening with the other Colleges, for now.

Imperial has an incentive to secede. In publicity terms, it’s a great way to celebrate the institution’s up-coming centenary in 2007. More importantly, Imperial has no significant dis-incentive. The College has very little dependency on UL’s central functions. There are a very few central facilities which IC students benefit from – but these compensating for these is certainly not insurmountable, provided that the Union keeps a watchful eye.

The situation at UCL is not the same. We at UCL depend much more on central UL facilities. In particular, UCL has a great captial, as well as intellectual, investment in the Senate House library. There is much property in the Bloomsbury area (as Jenkins alludes to) that UCL requires. So, UCL will not ‘withdraw’ from the University like Imperial. It is not in our interests to do so and Prof Malcolm Grant, UCL’s Provost, was keen to stress the fact at Academic Board.

UCL wants the University of London to be dissolved so that it can inherit those assets it deems necessary to secure its future, and will therefore stay until the end. The Provost’s discussion paper, The Future of the University of London is very clear. For what it’s worth I believe Prof Grant’s analysis to be mostly sound. Of the four options he proposes for the future, I largely agree with option 4, which he calls “A radical reorganisation of higher education London”. This essentially amounts to UCL absorbing the central University and Bloomsbury Colleges. I don’t simply support this now as a UCL student. I actually agreed with it when I first read the paper, when I was President of Imperial College Union and hadn’t even thought about applying to UCL for my master’s. It’s just the only sensible option. Having said that, UCL really ought to sort out their chronic organisational inefficiency and bureaucracy before they try absorbing any more Colleges!

UCL also (probably) wants the University of London name (back – depending on your point of view). That little niggle (as well as some dependence on central services) is what will keep King’s College in the federation, for now. King’s also have as their Principal, Rick Trainor, who seems to see more value in the University of London than most King’s academics. Nevertheless King’s wishes to see fundamental reform of the University. Their submission to the Vice Chancellor makes it very clear that they are not at all happy with the status quo but paragraphs 3.3-3.4 give away the fact that they are scared of a UCL takeover (not of King’s but of many of the smaller institutes in the University with which King’s continues to collaborate with).

LSE, like Imperial, can go it alone quite easily and may well follow Imperial’s lead though their Director, Howard Davies, is the cautious sort. The other Colleges simply don’t matter. They are but pawns as the “big four” play a game of chess over the University’s future.

The key thing, however, is that we are approaching the ‘end game’ as far as the University of London is concerned. This doesn’t mean that it will disappear over night. It will probably last a few years (possibly a decade or so) as the politicking between Colleges winds its slow course. Imperial and UCL are merely kick-starting the process by using destabilisation as a catalyst for change. UCL will not withdraw from the University – but it does not need to do so in order to launch a takeover bid.

What does this mean for ULU? That’s a whole different story. But ULU’s future cannot really be resolved until that of the University is clear. And that’s where it really would be helpful for the University’s inevitable dissolution to be accelerated – so that we can make sure students don’t get raw deal at the end of it all.

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