Bill paves way for London colleges to gain university status

Legislation making its way through Parliament could help address ‘brand confusion’ overseas

April 18, 2018
University of London
Senate House, University of London

Twelve member institutions of the University of London, including UCL and King’s College London, are planning to apply for university status in their own right, subject to a bill on the federal institution completing its passage through the UK’s Parliament.

The University of London Bill – a private bill promoted by the institution itself – aims to strengthen the institution by reducing the drivers for member institutions to leave, by allowing them to apply for university title.

Any of the member colleges “could choose to leave the federation in order to achieve separate university status (as Imperial [College London] had to in 2006), but this would weaken the federal university and disadvantage the [member institution] forced into that position”, law firm Pinsent Masons writes on behalf of the University of London in documents submitted to Parliament as part of the bill process.

The member institutions “need to be able to obtain university title, but they wish to remain within the federation: Imperial did not have that choice”.

The bill would repeal the University of London Act 1994.

The University of London’s 18 member institutions have their own degree-awarding powers and a combined total of about 120,000 students. Letters from the institutions published alongside the bill show that UCL and King’s are among the 12 members planning to apply for university title immediately.

Maureen Boylan, acting secretary of the University of London, told Times Higher Education that the “critical” change would be to the definitions section of the act, allowing member “universities” – rather than just institutes, schools and colleges at present – to be included within the federal institution.

The current act also sets out how the University of London makes its statutes and “we’ve taken the opportunity to bring it up to date”, she said.

Documents related to the bill show that the University of London informed local Unison and University and College Union representatives that their unions’ “rights to be consulted in relation to the making of or amendments to the statutes of the university would be formally removed under the bill”.

Union representatives said they had no objections to the bill after being assured that the statutes had no relation to employment matters.

Ms Boylan – who hopes the legislation could receive Royal Assent by the summer – said the bill was “at least the third time” in the past 20 years that the University of London “had attempted to have this conversation with the government”.

“But this time, we were pushing on an open door,” she added. “Jo Johnson [the former universities minister] agreed with us that it was absolutely ludicrous that the constituent members of the federal university are not universities – they are colleges, technically, legally speaking.”

Asked why it was important for members to have their own university statuses, Ms Boylan said: “It really varies…But internationally, especially, there are occasions where they might be left out of a league table, they might be left off funding [allocations]; it might just be confusing for students and staff [in recruitment].”

She added: “In a nutshell, it’s brand confusion. For some it scarcely matters; for some it matters rather more.”

Highlighting recent changes to the English higher education system, Ms Boylan said: “You’ve got all these new entrants…They can become universities – and UCL can’t. It’s crazy, really. So we’re putting right an anachronism.”

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