Is the IoE wise to yoke itself to UCL, asks Miriam David

Specialist institutions may find it difficult to go it alone in today’s academy but mergers may bring few benefits, says Miriam David

February 20, 2014

To marry or not to marry: that is the question. As a feminist academic concerned about gender equality in higher education, I am struck by statements about the proposed merger between the Institute of Education, University of London, and University College London: they make the “market” in higher education sound like a marriage market, replete with inequalities of power, property and status (“Institute will bring ‘healthy dowry’ to UCL marriage”, 13 February).

I have just spent three days in Barcelona working on a research project, funded by the European Union as part of its Daphne programme, on training for teachers and youth workers about gender-related violence and implications for diverse notions of sexuality in young people’s lives, and perhaps it has made me more highly sensitised to language of this kind. The research is an antidote to the heavy vocabulary of neoliberalism and management-speak that pervades discussions at home, with their focus on globalisation and the international “race” for students.

News of the merger follows the announcement of a strategic partnership between the IoE and UCL in October 2012. Looking back, it is clear that we at the IoE have been involved in a long engagement, wooed by UCL for what our dowry might bring to the partnership. We have, moreover, flirted in a traditionally feminine way (“Will you play with me and do you really like me more than the other potential partners from the various colleges of the University of London?”). Of course we are the female partner in the likely marriage. We have mainly female students and staff whereas UCL feels so much stronger as the male partner, with its emphasis on more traditionally masculine subjects such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and medicine. We are told that UCL would be a wonderful provider and protector of our more sensitive and fragile subjects out in the big bad world of what some call “globaloney”.

We will get a new name, but we may be allowed a double-barrelled one. We will lose our autonomy and have to merge our assets - in return for what protection?

And we do have a wonderful dowry – valuable assets, property in buildings, postgraduate and doctoral students in education, and an excellent research record (especially in the sociology of education) with a world-class reputation. We would modify the gender balance of UCL; while it has equal numbers of female and male undergraduate students like other universities, it is very unbalanced with regard to academic staff, and even more so among its senior management (although the IoE’s senior management is also male-dominated).

This has not been a shotgun wedding but a long prelude to betrothal or “full merger”. Like many wives, we will get a new name on marriage; but we may be allowed a double-barrelled one. We will lose our autonomy and independence and will have to merge our assets – but in return for what protection? We are told that a merger will secure a better financial future, one in which we will be better able to compete for ourselves and “our children”: students and researchers.

But what if it does not work and we feel the need to separate? Perhaps UCL will be violent, take our belongings and hit us hard, like a violent husband. What redress will there be? In a divorce, who will get the children and what care will they need? Will UCL be prepared to pay alimony? And if we decide not to marry after all, will we be able to go it alone, becoming a single parent and having to bring up the children on our own in a harsh new world without the old systems of state support?

There seems to be no collective memory of the protective cover once provided by the old University of London. For almost 100 years it gave all of us – including all the other colleges that might have been suitors in this marriage market – a tried and tested administrative and quality control system. But with the role of the federal university vastly reduced in recent years, its colleges and institutes are now treated as separate and not-so-equal beings in the new, competitive world of higher education. Like many women in the traditional marriage market, we have no choice but to accept the offer of marriage and grin and bear it like any grateful woman should!

Surely it is time for some changes in the rules of the patriarchal game. The academic world needs to think more carefully about how it organises its courses, subjects and research; higher education institutions are not simply chattels to be bought and sold at will.

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