In an era when institutional collaboration is being championed by politicians everywhere, regional federations might be an idea whose time has come. No higher education policy debate is complete without a homily to Wisconsin or another American system. In fact, however, these are hard times for the UK's two federal universities: both in London and Wales, reviews are taking place and there is pressure for reforms. Cardiff has already left the University of Wales and Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, has asked whether there would be a need to invent the University of London if it did not already exist.
The University of London has slimmed down its operations considerably since the last threat to its existence more than a decade ago. It remains a powerful "brand" internationally and its review was prompted not by critics but by its own vice-chancellor, Sir Graeme Davies, who wants to strengthen its role. Nevertheless, the answer to Professor Grant's question is that the university would not be established in its current form today - and neither would the University of Wales. That does not mean, of course, that either set of members will want to destroy such historic institutions. But it will add to the urgency of the search for a sustainable role.
In both cases, the future surely lies in a broader membership and a more ambassadorial role. Cardiff may not need the academic umbrella of the federal university, but the four colleges that joined last year obviously value it. The University of Wales, Newport, recorded the biggest increase in numbers of applications in the UK this year and attributed much of its popularity to shedding its college title. In London, there may be more big players that could thrive outside the federation, but a number of current outsiders would benefit from membership. Neither university will want to see its role reduced in status to the level of a network such as the White Rose organisation in Yorkshire, successful though that format has been. But there is a halfway house between that and the current more extensive and expensive arrangements. Without some reform, sooner or later some of the most powerful members will lose patience and the edifice will collapse.