Imperial's plan to axe its old ties

November 18, 2005

University of London could be weakened by major player's proposal. Jessica Shepherd reports

Imperial College London plans to leave the capital's federal university within two years, according to documents leaked to The Times Higher . This will fuel fears that other institutions will follow suit.

Internal documents show that Imperial intends to break ranks with the University of London in time for its centenary in 2007. The college's council is expected to decide in favour of secession at its meeting on December 9. Managers feel that the college derives little benefit from being part of the university.

A report of an Imperial senate meeting held on November 2 reads: "Subject to any expressions from the senate... the management board would recommend to the council at its meeting on December 9, 2005 that negotiations with the university be opened with the intention of seceding from the federation."

It says that Imperial hopes to achieve "formal exit" by July 2007 and that the first cohort of students would enter "for an Imperial degree" in October 2008. The report adds that, in the interim, students registered for a University of London degree would be offered the choice of graduating with an Imperial degree.

A senior Imperial source said: "I'd place bets that the college will leave."

Imperial is arguably the university's most prestigious constituent college, boasting 18 departments rated 5*. It has had the power to award its own degrees since 2003. This power is held in abeyance.

The college has said that it has no plans to apply to the Privy Council for the right to call itself a university if it secedes.

According to university insiders, Imperial's departure could have a domino effect on bigger constituent colleges.

Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, described Imperial's plan as "a huge wake-up call" and a "serious blow" to the University of London.

He said: "The University of London is in danger of fragmenting. Imperial's actions will provoke questions in the minds of all the other colleges about whether they are getting full value for money."

Professor Grant said that he had not ruled out UCL withdrawing from the federation at some point. He said that he was pushing to activate the degree-awarding powers that UCL has held in abeyance since September.

Rick Trainor, principal of King's College London, said that if Imperial were to leave, King's influence in the federation should be bolstered.

He said: "The secession of Imperial would reinforce the view that the university should be radically reformed by strengthening the influence of King's and the other colleges."

Sir Graeme Davies, vice-chancellor of the University of London, said: "The University of London has for some time acted as the postbox for Imperial.

Of course, I would be disappointed if Imperial withdrew."

But he added: "Those who wish to make mischief would say that the federation would break up. It won't. This is not the start of the end of the University of London."

Sir Graeme commissioned a study into the future of the university and Imperial responded scathingly in April.

Rodney Eastwood, Imperial's director of strategy and planning, wrote:

"Imperial believes that small adjustments to the university's structure, governance or efficiency are unlikely to address the fundamental issue of its academic irrelevance to most of the constituent colleges.

"A new order needs to recognise this rather than rely on the illusion of unity offered by the current arrangements and 'university' name. Imperial contributes about £800,000 a year as a membership fee to the university, but receives very little in return."

The University of London is in discussions with the Quality Assurance Agency over a report by the watchdog into its role in awarding degrees. The report is due in January, 2006.


18 University College London is founded

1829 King's College London is founded

1836 The University of London is founded as a governing body for the colleges and other existing London institutions and medical schools

1907 Imperial College London founded from a number of institutions; becomes part of the university.

1908 The university becomes the largest in the UK and the fifth largest in the world

1937 Senate House in Bloomsbury is built

1939 Senate House is taken over by the Ministry of Information in wartime

1980s Some of the university's colleges join to form larger institutions, such as Royal Holloway

1990s Many of the university's central responsibilities are devolved to colleges. The Higher Education Funding Council for England starts to fund the colleges directly.

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