Cost of merger is more than fees

October 25, 2002

If UCL and Imperial merge, it could spell the end for some of London's smaller colleges, warns Geoffrey Alderman.

The proposal made by its rector Sir Richard Sykes, that Imperial College should charge fees of up to £15,000 a year, ought to come as no surprise. Britain lacks the US's culture of private or corporate giving so the only question remaining is: where is this much-needed money to be found?

Taxpayers' money to bridge the gap between what the universities need and what they receive has been ruled out. Sir Richard has come up with the obvious answer: those who benefit from higher education should pay much more towards its true cost.

Sir Richard's basic contention ought to be subject to near-universal approval. But it is not. My worry is that his bold initiative will be smothered by the murky contexts in which and into which it has been launched - the University of London. His fees proposal comes in the wake of the announcement that Imperial is negotiating a merger with University College London. Sir Richard and Sir Derek Roberts, acting provost of UCL, hope that a merger between two of the most prestigious colleges in the federal University of London will form a "super-university".

Several very nasty hornets' nests are likely to be disturbed by this proposal. The smaller colleges will almost certainly be forced to merge with Imperial/ UCL, if for no other reason than because the two will stop paying annual federation subscriptions.

During the 1990s Imperial and UCL embarked on aggressive takeover sprees. Imperial took over St Mary's Hospital Medical School and Wye College. UCL swallowed the Royal Free and Middlesex Hospital medical schools, and made no secret of its desire to take over the School of Oriental and African Studies and Birkbeck College.

Westfield College was broken up, its assets (human and physical) shared out between UCL and King's and Queen Mary colleges. If the Imperial/UCL merger goes ahead, creating a new university outside the federation able to charge and collect sizeable fees, the survival of the federation's remaining members must be in doubt.

King's and Queen Mary might be able to survive for a time. But I would not put money on Royal Holloway and would even put a question mark over the survival of the London School of Economics.

Sir Richard has made clear that he would want to see arts and social science courses forced to charge the same fees as laboratory-based subjects in order to prevent customer drift into the humanities. The LSE might be able to cope with this, but only by recruiting a greater proportion of its student body from outside the European Union.

Royal Holloway would survive only by selling more of the paintings bequeathed by its founder - a move that would reopen the scarcely healed wounds it inflicted on itself when it sold its Turner, Gainsborough and Constable.

But issues even greater than these would come to the fore. The federal university's independent research institutes would be forced to merge with UCL, thus realising an ambition that the plutocrats of Gower Street have long cherished. Historically, the federation has acted as champion and guarantor, however imperfect, of the academic freedom of all the university's teaching staff. That too would disappear.

The university also acted as the guardian of the University of London degrees - and did so much more effectively than the Quality Assurance Agency could ever do. It was able to do this partly because it gave individual academics the autonomy they needed to question, challenge and, if necessary, overturn administrative decisions made at college level. It also gave subjects - as opposed to departments - a semi-autonomous status, something to which college heads were never reconciled.

If Imperial/UCL really does want to call itself "The University of London", then we are in for one of the bloodiest intra-university battles within living memory.

Geoffrey Alderman, vice-president of American InterContinental University, London, was formerly pro vice-chancellor of the University of London. He writes in a personal capacity.

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