London's falling

Geoffrey Alderman mourns the decline and seemingly inevitable disintegration of a once great democratic body

December 13, 2012

In announcing the creation of 10 new universities, the government has signalled its rejection of the idea that an institution needs to have thousands of students on its books to merit the coveted university title. In so doing, it may also have paved the way for the final disintegration of the University of London.

In August 2012, the education company Pearson announced the launch of Pearson College, through which students will be able to study for degrees in partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London. Pearson's press statement pointed out that Royal Holloway is "part of the University of London". But some digging on my part confirmed that Pearson graduates will hold degrees validated by Royal Holloway in its own right.

In common with all the large colleges of the university (and some of the smaller ones, too), Royal Holloway now has its own degree-awarding powers. But while it has not hitherto exercised them, several of the other constituent colleges have.

London School of Economics students have been earning LSE degrees since 2007-08, while King's College London, University College London and Queen Mary, University of London offer both their own degrees and those validated by the federal university. Even the much-respected London University External System (rebranded two years ago as "University of London International Programmes") has been portioned out among the constituent colleges on a subject-by-subject basis.

When I was chair of its academic council between 1989 and 1994, the University of London existed as a most effective, democratic community of scholars and students. Virtually any academic - even humble lecturers - could be elected to the university senate and serve on the committees that dealt on the senate's behalf with every aspect of academic quality management. This included the approval of all degree programmes; the monitoring of delivery (whether federally or by a single college); the approval of senior appointments; the hearing of appeals (up to and including the doctoral level); and the policing of the university's comprehensive regulations governing academic malpractice (by students or staff). The colleges were beholden to the university and all their students graduated with University of London degrees.

But it was this very oversight - and the democratic structure that underpinned it - that aroused the ire of college administrations. All degree proposals had to be vetted by subject-based "boards of studies" before being submitted to the academic council for ratification.

These arrangements were already under attack in the 1980s, by which time some of the colleges had become larger than some self-governing universities. The transformation in 1992 of the polytechnics into universities with their own degree-awarding powers only added to the pressure for change. But the death blow to the academic council, which was abolished in 1994, was delivered by a cabal of college heads, frustrated that policies they could push through their respective institutions could be - and not infrequently were - vetoed at the federal level, sometimes on the initiative of their own academic staff.

A great deal of rather turbulent water has passed under the bridge since then. The university's transition into what is, in effect, a loose confederation of academically independent colleges and institutes was completed in 2006 with its decision not to replace its retiring academic registrar; it seems to me inevitable that even the smallest colleges will soon wish to award their own degrees.

All that is left of the federal university I knew are the research institutes - which are national institutions - and the Senate House Library. Oh, and the university's Bloomsbury estate, which must be worth a tidy sum. But if this is all that is keeping the university alive, let it be sold off, the proceeds distributed pro rata, and a memorial erected to a great institution that once was but is - alas - no more.

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