LONDON's higher education should be integrated citywide with a possible "opted out" privatised tier of top research institutions, says a leading educationist.
Gareth Williams, head of the policy studies academic group at the Institute of Education, told a conference in the capital this week that an umbrella body could distribute funding and be responsible for quality assurance of all participating institutions. He said that London might also be a candidate for a regional funding council.
His comments came in the same week that a draft report by the Central London Training and Enterprise Council revealed a startling lack of coordination between London higher education institutions and businesses. It urges more formal links.
Professor Williams, who gave one of two keynote speeches to the conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies, contrasted Greater London's higher education provision with that in the United States. He singled out New York where half of the 400,000 students studied at institutions which are part of the system operated by the City University of New York.
He said: "Those advocating a move in the direction of the US system should recognise that in major cities there are systemwide planning arrangements which make efforts at coordinating different institutions within the city."
Professor Williams said that there were benefits to be had from coordination and integration, not least the maintenance of educational diversity and income generation through, for example, a united approach to exploiting consultancy work.
The professor used the University of London, where restructuring has given the constituent colleges more independence, as an example of what might happen if institutional competition was allowed to dominate integration and coordination.
He said: "It seems a pity that the strong institutions created by the restructuring have turned against the university. In future the colleges will have the choice of combining their strength or becoming relatively mediocre, competing institutions."
Professor Williams said that, while he favoured an integrated approach involving all London universities, he was aware that certain top research institutions were actively considering tuition fees.
He said: "One way forward for the Russell Group in London may be some sort of privatisation while the rest of us join an integrated system. This would depend on the existence of some sort of voucher-based funding for students."
Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, also criticised the lack of higher education coordination in London. Mr Travers said: "London universities are as fragmented and operate as separately from each other as all other aspects of the capital. What is here is here because of some great accident of history or luck. Leadership is there to be had."
The conference, called Higher Education in London into the Millennium, was organised by the Association of University Teachers, National Union of Students, Manufacturing Science and Finance union, and Natfhe.
Focus on London, pages 6 and 7