University of Bloomsbury: a new campus for the heart of London?

April 16, 1999

When, a year ago, I took up the directorship of the Institute of Historical Research in London after ten years at the University of Columbia, my friends warned me that while my colleagues would be agreeable and distinguished, the structure of the now largely decentralised London university would strike me as being at best irrational, at worst incomprehensible - more akin to the Byzantine or Habsburg empires than to a modern structure of management or decision-making.

There were, they told me, too many colleges, too many departments. And this, they further insisted, was only the "old" university. If the new universities within the M25 were included, the result was an array of academic talent that was, collectively, unrivalled, but that was distributed too thinly among too many institutions. Just as London has more orchestras than any other capital city, but none of undisputed international excellence, so (they went on) the same can be said of London's colleges and universities.

I still do not feel I have been back in Britain long enough to reach a fully informed view on what are complex and contentious matters. But my interim conclusion is that there is something to be said for these opinions, especially as they relate to the Bloomsbury area of London.

The resources for higher learning in the humanities that are available here are the best in the country, but they are not organised or combined (or financed) in a rational or imaginative way. There are too many small-scale units, there is too much overlap and duplication, there is insufficient rationalisation of resources, and there should be more of a collective sense of endeavour and excitement than there is.

But what if it were possible to combine University College London and Birkbeck College, to bring them into closer association with the British Library and the British Museum, and then to top this off with a revived and reborn School of Advanced Studies of London University, of which the IHR is one institute among 11 (the remainder being concerned with the law, the classics, the Commonwealth, the US, Latin America, Romance languages, Germanic studies, English studies, philosophy and the influence of the classical tradition on art)?

The result would be a University of Bloomsbury that would be the best in Britain for the humanities. And this would not only be good for London and for Britain as a whole, it would also complement those two other great centres of learning in London - Imperial College in the hard sciences (to which should be added the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum) and the London School of Economics in the social sciences (which should be more closely linked with City University and London Guildhall University).

It is at this point, with speculation in full, abundant, and perhaps delirious flow, that I am reminded of a saying from George Bernard Shaw that was much popularised during the 1960s by John and Robert Kennedy:

"Other people see things (as they are) and... say 'why?'. But I dream things that never were and I say, 'why not?'" Well, why not a University of Bloomsbury? There are many compelling answers: the entrenched loyalties of students, staff and alumni; the forces of geography, tradition, inertia and vested interests; the absence of any sign of firm or committed leadership; and the lack of an adequate endowment to underpin such a leviathan of learning.

But while these objections are all true they do not seem to me to be necessarily right. The creation of a University of Bloomsbury is a task that should capture the imagination of anyone who cares about the future of the humanities, the future of this city and the future of the country.

David Cannadine is professor of history and director of the Institute of Historical Research, London. This is an extract from his inaugural lecture, Making History Now, at Senate House, April 21, 5.30pm.

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