Thursday, 3 August 2006

The University of London - a really good idea gone horribly wrong

It seems as if the chances of the University of London breaking up are increasing. Imperial and UCL have been trying to escape for some time, with others not far behind. This is really a great shame, as the University of London is a good thing, and it would be a better one if it had some teeth.

First the logic. Land in London is expensive. Centralisation of function works in some cases. And large University departments often work better than smaller ones. So it makes sense for some functions,-the student union, the careers service, the library and so on,-to be provided centrally rather than by each college. The University provides these to the benefit of all.

Now for the more difficult bit. There are some genuinely world class departments at many Unversity of London institutions. Most of the science or engineering departments at Imperial, Asian languages at SOAS, theology and law at Kings, quite a bit of UCL for instance. There are also frankly pretty mediocre ones, and there is a lot of duplication. Is the University's reputation really enhanced, say, by physics at Kings, Royal Holloway or Birkbeck when it is done so well elsewhere? Perhaps, but the case is at least arguable. A University of London with teeth would be able to enforce quality control and would allocate resources where they could do the most good: it makes little sense for colleges to try to compete in subjects they are not world class in when they could spend the money in their best departments.

Of course, the colleges hate this idea. The idea of the University of London actually enforcing high quality standards seems to terrify them. They appear to prefer duplicating facilities and offering lower standard courses than cooperating with their colleagues a few miles down the road. Together, the colleges of the University of London could be a world class institution. Separately they are not nearly as strong. But pride and hubris seems to be pushing them apart.

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