Imperial College's decision to leave the University of London has led some observers to speculate yet again that the federal university has had its day. Not only might other colleges follow Imperial's lead, but anything less than full confidence in the university's degree-awarding procedures in next month's audit by the Quality Assurance Agency could produce a domino effect.
The decision by Sir Graeme Davies, the vice-chancellor, to consult on the future role of the university, might backfire spectacularly. Sir Graeme was right, however, to get questions about the structure and activities of the federation out in the open. The reforms introduced more than a decade ago, when Imperial was last threatening to go its own way, addressed concerns about the university's powers of intervention in college affairs, notably in academic appointments. But, while they did slim down the administration, the outcome was never likely to be sustainable in the long term. There are still areas in which the federation might do more - credit transfer, for example, or in overseas promotion. And there are certainly areas in which further trimming is required, in particular in the machinery of government.
The loss of Imperial will be more of a blow than Sir Graeme might wish to admit, but it should not prove fatal to the federation. It is unfortunate that the college chose not to wait for the outcome of the review, but it has a sufficiently strong international reputation to stand alone. The same is true of other big players such as University College London, but - in the short term at least - they are more likely to use Imperial's departure to bring extra pressure to bear on the federal university to refocus and economise. Both are essential if the university is to convince the likes of UCL that its costly subscription represents value for money.
The QAA's objections, on the other hand, are an unnecessary distraction that should be the last reason for the federation's demise. Of course, it is true that the University of London does not exercise the same detailed control over academic standards as other degree-awarding institutions. This is because that role is performed by its colleges, all of which are audited separately by the QAA and none of which has been found wanting. Surely the QAA does not want a duplication of functions of the type that might well prompt an exodus of colleges.
If the University of London is to survive, the measures flowing from Sir Graeme's consultation may have to be more radical than he anticipated in February. The university needs UCL and the London School of Economics, for example, much more than they need it. But the federation is far from the lost cause that its critics suggest. Not only would it be fearsomely complicated and expensive to unravel, but there is little enthusiasm among the remaining membership for the nuclear option. That is not simply a matter of sentimentality or academic inertia, although both will no doubt work in the federation's favour. It is a recognition that when 20 colleges and a dozen institutes operate in the same city, there are obvious benefits in sharing some services, particularly when the umbrella body can confer worldwide prestige. The outsider's question is why it does not cover more of the other 20-plus universities and colleges in London. Perhaps at some stage it will, although that is not a likely outcome of the current consultation. What that must do is to set in train a new set of reforms that make the university sufficiently flexible to serve both the small and potentially vulnerable institutes in the School of Advanced Study and self-sufficient colleges such as King's and Queen Mary. It will not be easy, but Imperial's decision will concentrate minds.