The future of the University of London hangs in the balance after it came under attack from its biggest and oldest constituent college.
Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, this week questioned the continued existence of the university and hinted that a merger with Imperial College London - or a take-over of the smaller Bloomsbury colleges - could be on the cards.
The ideas came in a counterattack to an attempt by Sir Graeme Davies, vice-chancellor of the University of London, to determine future directions for the federal institution.
Sir Graeme proposes a strengthening of the central university through possible expansion and intercollegiate teaching initiatives.
But Professor Grant told The Times Higher: "It rather begs the question of whether the University of London has a future.
"I do think we need to have that a priori question. In reviews of quangos, the first question is, if we didn't already have this organisation, would we need to invent it? In this case, I think the answer is no.
"Although the university provides a number of services, it is difficult to say that they would not be better provided through individual arrangements of partnerships between institutions. As for the brand, that is to do with the outstanding reputation of the university's constituent colleges."
The paper published by Professor Grant reads: "The University of London as a federal institution of 19 of the 41 higher education institutions (in the capital) lacks both the capacity and the legitimacy to play the leadership role that its name suggests.
"London institutions would be unwise to ignore the recent merger between Umist and the University of Manchester: this must act as a stimulus to thinking of what comparable opportunities might exist for London."
His paper outlines alternatives to the continuing existence of the University of London. These include a discussion of how closer links could see four university quadrants emerge: one in Bloomsbury, dominated by UCL and incorporating smaller institutions and taking the University of London moniker; one comprising the London School of Economics and King's College London; one based around Imperial in West London; and one based around Queen Mary, University of London, in East London.
Membership of the federal university is strongly supported by smaller constituent institutions such as Birkbeck, the Institute of Education and the School of African and Oriental Studies. But bigger colleges such as Imperial are more neutral.
Sir Graeme said: "The thing about a federation is that any of the colleges can leave at any time. The only thing that would happen is that it would lose the University of London degree."
Rick Trainor, principal of King's College London, said: "Along with University College, King's was one of the two founding colleges of the university. We would take a lot of persuading that any one college should take the University of London title.
The role of the university was last reviewed a decade ago.
1826 University College London established on Gower Street
1836 King William IV grants the University of London power to confer degrees on students of UCL, King's and other approved institutions
1932 Building work starts on Senate House to house enlarged admin functions
1995 University ceases to be a funding body for its constituent colleges.
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