Monday, 27 July 2015

One plus one equals one

Earlier this month the Board of Trustees of the University of London agreed to admit City University, London to membership of the University. This is quite a big deal, and worth a few words. (Disclosure: I hold a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of London, and I’ve worked at both University of London Senate House and City University, London. I’m very fond of both institutions …)

It’s a slightly complex thing to explain. The University of London is a peculiar kind of university – I’ve heard it described (sorry, I can’t source this) as ‘a mission group with an estates strategy’. A proper account of its history is best left to others, and I heartily recommend – for both wit and learning – Negley Harte’s history of the University, published for its 150th anniversary in 1986.

In short, the University of London was created in 1836 to solve a political problem, being a squabble between Tories and Whigs about university education in London. It was a compromise which enabled both University College London and King’s College London to award degrees, without either being itself a university. The University of London set the examinations and awarded the degrees, and over time other colleges – including many of the future redbrick universities in the UK, and institutions across the British Empire – prepared students for University of London degrees.

Eventually this examinations work morphed into the External Degree programme (now the University of London International Programme), with the University’s Colleges – not only UCL and KCL but also places like LSE, Imperial, Royal Holloway, SOAS and so on – having a much more direct relationship with the University. Towards the 1960’s and 70’s the University was very powerful in relation to its Colleges, but with direct funding of the larger Colleges in the 1980’s and statute changes in 1994 this changed. The Colleges became more autonomous, and the University’s role changed to one of service provision, and guarantor of academic standards in relation to the University of London degree and the External Programme. A few years later, Colleges were permitted to apply for, and use, Degree Awarding Powers of their own. This left the obvious question, what was the University of London for? Imperial left the University in 2006, and I would speculate that were it not for very complicated estates issues, other Colleges might have followed. The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama had joined the University in 2005, so in a sense it was one in, one out, but Imperial was a significant component of the university, and its departure was noticed.

In the light of this, City University applying to be a College is a big deal. It shows that the University’s offer – services for student and academic staff, and a very strong brand internationally – is still worth having. And it re-forges an old connection – prior to its being granted University title in 1966, City University London was the Northampton Institute (because it’s in Northampton Square, EC1) and prepared students for the University of London degree as an Institution having Recognised Teachers.

So what were the reasons on each side?

For City, there’ll have been a reputation argument, and a facilities argument. City has been seeking to strengthen its reputation as a research university (with considerable investment in staff, its GPA went from 2.48 in the 2008 RAE to 2.95 in the 2014 REF), and membership of the University of London will help to cement this. Equally, the University of London brand will help student recruitment in the UK and overseas (City has a strong brand in the Cass Business School, but in other areas it is not so well known). And finally, the University’s students will have access to the University’s facilities, both academic and sporting. A good thing for City University London, in lots of ways.

For the University of London the issues are slightly different. I do think that a part of it is the demonstration that the University still has vitality and appeal, as argued above. But also relevant are the very strong links which City University London has to the City of London – something which the University of London will be keen to build upon. The naming and foundation of City University in 1966 recognised the benefits of an association between a university and the City of London. That this was not clearly best accomplished through the University of London speaks to the historical lack of structural engagement between the square mile and Senate House.

There is an annual subscription fee which will be paid by City to the University of London, and no doubt there’ll be some haggling about this. But in the scheme of things the financial issues are small for both sides.

Also interesting are the governance changes necessitated by the move. To quote from City’s press release:
City intends to join the University of London in August 2016. This will allow time for the Privy Council to agree a supplemental Charter which will change City’s name and the titles of its senior officers reflecting that it will have become an autonomous College within the University of London.
One of the conceptual stumbling blocks to City joining was the question of whether you could have a university as a member of a university. In this case, the solution is for City to lose its University status and title– my money would be on City, University of London as the new title. Similarly, you can’t have two Vice-Chancellors in a University, so Professor Paul Curran looks like being the last Vice-Chancellor of City University, London, and the first Principal (or possibly President) of the new College of the University.

Come August 2016 there’ll be a big party in Northampton Square, and probably in Russell Square too. And I’ll raise a glass to that!

No comments:

Post a comment