Split over power shake-up

May 4, 2007

College heads struggle to reach consensus on new governance plans for the University of London, Rebecca Attwood reports

The University of London has laid out plans for a new governance structure, but the reforms do not go far enough, according to the head of one of its biggest constituent colleges.

Malcolm Grant, provost and president of University College London and one of four college heads in the body set up to design new statutes, told The Times Higher that he resigned from the working group this year because he believed the proposals were not as radical as they should be.

The plans include replacing the university's current 74-strong senate and 72-strong council system with a more streamlined, "corporate" structure. A 14-strong board of trustees, with a majority of lay members, would replace the council and would act as the executive body.

The heads of colleges would be brought together in a collegiate council - chaired by the vice-chancellor - which would decide strategy and policy.

The position of vice-chancellor would be reviewed after three years of the new system, due to run from August 2008.

According to Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London and a member of the Constitutional Review Working Group, these are significant changes that place the colleges "in the driving seat" of the university.

But Professor Grant is concerned that under the proposals the "final say"

will lie with the board of trustees rather than college heads. He believes the collegiate council should have executive responsibility.

He told The Times Higher that he decided to stand down from the working group because it was clear he had a different view to the other members of the group.

He said: "My view is that the University of London should become a commonwealth of its member colleges and be run by the colleges and for the colleges."

Professor Grant's vision would be for the board of trustees to hold the property and assets but allocate funding annually to the collegiate council.

"The collegiate council would have executive responsibility for leadership of the university and would appoint a chief executive who would deliver the running of the university," he said.

However, the Government advised that the collegiate council could not be the executive body, which Professor Grant said was "a serious blow" to the simplicity of the model.

He thinks the position of vice-chancellor should be abolished because it resurrects the notion of a central university with a separate leader. He would prefer the council to elect one of their number as chair. "I am not sure that what we are heading towards is sustainable in the medium term,"

Professor Grant said.

Sir Graeme Davies, the university's vice-chancellor, said the reforms would build "a whole new machine fit for the future".

The colleges would no longer be subordinate to the university. "That is a critical step," he said. "It places us in quite a different light.

Previously, in the way the statutes were constructed the University of London was superior to the colleges."

The collegiate council would take responsibility for the strategic direction of the university, he said, which he believed would put an end to what he admitted had been "a 'them and us' situation".

If the board and the council could not agree, the former would have to state its reasons for doing so in writing.

On the question of which body had overall power, Sir Graeme quipped: "My vision is that if the university in the future ever got to the stage where there was a serious rift between the board of trustees and the collegiate council, then we're in deep trouble. But I don't expect that because we have a common cause."

The new system would be much more efficient and cost-effective, he argued, because it would remove a "huge substructure" of committees, which would mean that business would no longer "get done twice".

Today, all the colleges are directly funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, but they pay a subscription to the central university or pay directly for specific services.

Direct funding, the decision by Imperial College London to break from the university, and moves by a number of colleges to award their own degrees, mean that questions have been asked about the university's purpose and future sustainability.

Sir Graeme argued that the university structure was valuable because it allowed high levels of collaboration between colleges, and because the University of London brand was an "immensely strong" one worldwide.

The university's external programme, which allows more than 34,000 students in more than 180 countries to study for 100 different programmes, is also valued.

Professor Crossick was optimistic that the future relationship between the university and the colleges would serve to further boost colleges' existing strengths.

He said: "Each of the colleges is a high-quality institution in its own right, but I believe that by coming together in a voluntary federation we can enhance and strengthen them still further."

But others feared that the consensus needed to secure the university's future was lacking.

Paul Webley, director and principal of the School of Oriental and African Studies, said: "I hope it works - we want to make it work because Soas values being part of the University of London. But I am not sure that it will because I'm not certain that there's necessarily the will to make it work on all sides."

Consultation on the plans runs until the end of July.

rebecca.attwood@thes.co.uk

Federal facts and figures

The University of London was the first in the UK to admit women, and it was responsible for introducing new subjects into higher education.

It was granted its first charter in 1836 and is the third-oldest university in England. But its two founding colleges, University College London and King's College London, predate it.

London opened its doors to women in 1878. By 1895, more than 10 per cent of its graduates were women and by 1900 this had risen to 30 per cent. It was the first university to introduce modern languages and laboratory science.

In 1908, it became the largest university in the UK with more than 4,000 students, exceeding numbers at Oxford and Cambridge universities.

In the 1990s, many of the university's central responsibilities were devolved to the colleges, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England also began to fund colleges directly.

Today, London is made up of 20 self-governing colleges and has more than125,000 students.

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