Freedom in federation

October 25, 2002

More important than whether UCL and Imperial merge is whether they remain part of the University of London, argues Graham Zellick.

Mergers are not new in the University of London. Over the past couple of decades we have been reduced from well over 30 colleges to fewer than 20.

Mergers are a matter for the colleges concerned. Therefore my concern, and that of heads of the other colleges, is the impact a merger - if it were to happen - would have on the federation.

Heads of colleges met last week for one of our regular meetings and were able to give some provisional consideration to these issues. First and foremost, we re-affirmed our commitment to the federal university and the significant benefits that it brings.

There was unanimity that a merged Imperial College and University College London did not mean that the resulting institution, whether a college or a university in its own right, could not remain within the federation. We all hope it will.

Either college is free to leave the university at any time if it wishes, as is any other college. We are an entirely consensual federation. As I understand it, the rector and provost have reached no view about whether the new institution, if it were to come about, will remain within the university. They will consider these matters in due course and we shall debate with them if their two governing bodies decide to proceed.

We hope any merged institution will remain within the university. Together, we represent nearly all of the capital's research-based higher education institutions. We share a long history and have common objectives and missions. Given the number and diversity of higher education institutions in London, there are very real advantages for our particular group to work closely together.

There are strong academic links that, being within a single framework, are readily facilitated. The mood across the university is for these to be strengthened and collaboration promoted. The university library - one of the UK's foremost collections in the humanities and social sciences - is certainly important to UCL, as are the ten institutes that make up the School of Advanced Study.

Both colleges are also much involved in the external programme, which has more than 30,000 students around the world and makes surpluses for the colleges that participate.

A merged Imperial/UCL would leave the arts, humanities, social sciences and law in UCL somewhat overwhelmed by the science, medicine and engineering in the rest of the college. Continued membership of the University of London would not only give comfort to that distinguished component of the institution, but would also provide real intellectual support.

On the non-academic side, many services are provided: the University of London Union in Malet Street would appear to be important for UCL, and the two colleges take up 900 places in intercollegiate halls of residence.

I hope that a merged institution would not wish to disturb these arrangements, would not wish to weaken the federation and, above all, would wish to remain part of a grouping of academic institutions that has no parallel in this country and that has a real resonance around the world.

We have crafted a federation that combines autonomy for the colleges and the freedom to realise their ambitions on the one hand, with membership of an organisation that links us all through our past, through what we do at the present time and in our shared aspirations. To weaken such links would surely be unwise.

But, Imperial and UCL apart, there are still another 70,000 students across the other 16 colleges of the university. Any merged institution would constitute less than one-third of the whole federation. And I predict that, without modifying the coherence of institutions within the university, the number of constituent colleges would grow over the next few years.

So I have no doubt that the University of London will continue to flourish. I hope that it will include Imperial and University colleges, separately or united.

Graham Zellick is vice-chancellor of the University of London.

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