Combine or be doomed

London University's fractures could be healed by dismemberment but elsewhere collaboration is the buzzword.
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The Independent Online
London is one of the world's great metropolitan powerhouses of higher education. It contains colleges with glitzy international reputations as well as specialist centres and universities with their feet firmly in their local communities. Within 25 miles of Charing Cross, there are 58 institutions educating 220,000 full-time and 110,000 part-time students, and providing higher education to a quarter of England's student population.

It is not unlike New York in scale. Yet, according to some experts, it differs from the Big Apple in that there is precious little collaboration between the different units and even less vision about how higher education energises the economy - how it can connect with business and local and central governments as a force for good.

"The London higher education system is incredibly fragmented," says Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics. "It has very little consciousness of its 'Londonness' - and that is more true of the old universities than the new. The University of London and its constituent colleges are extraordinarily unwilling to think of themselves as part of London."

The same cannot be said of cities such as Leeds, Birmingham and Edinburgh, he adds. Big efforts have been made in those places to serve residents and to act as a catalyst for business. "The colleges of London University are more concerned about being independent than about co-ordinating their activities," says Professor Gareth Williams, of the London Institute of Education. "It is a tragedy for higher education in the capital that London University, itself one of the world's great universities, has fragmented into more than a dozen competing institutions."

The library and careers service, the envy of most other universities, are being sacrificed to the ambitions of individual college leaders, he adds in a paper to be discussed today at a seminar at Manchester University on higher education and the regions, which is collecting evidence for the Dearing inquiry into higher education. "In the future," he says, "London universities and colleges will have the choice of combining to exploit their strength, or becoming a competing collection of mostly mediocre, relatively small institutions. I hope the Dearing report will provide us with the opportunity of following the former path."

That is why Professor Williams is putting forward a bold plan for the metropolis. The time may have come to wind up London University, which has no remaining planning or resource-allocation powers, he argues. In its place, we could build a city-wide system offering public higher education in the capital on a co-ordinated basis and financed by a new London higher education funding council. The model is the City University of New York, an integrated system containing nine campuses and with the power to plan and disburse money right across the city.

But half of New York's students are in highly respected private universities such as Columbia and New York University. Gareth Williams's most radical idea is to allow the three top research institutions in London - the LSE and University and Imperial colleges - to opt out, go private and charge fees. Students from families who could not afford it would be given vouchers or scholarships.

That way, London could offer mass education across all disciplines - research into minor medieval languages, state-of-the-art biotechnology, access courses for those whose secondary education failed them, and courses for the growing army of pensioners who want to keep their minds active. Professor Williams clearly believes that such a plan is not going to happen under the present system.

One of the problems with London is its size, coupled with the fact that there is no longer any city-wide government. Colleges of London University see themselves first as international institutions, second as national ones and only third as having any particular local connections. Few Londoners feel a London identity any more. All of this means that the incentives for collaboration are fewer than in other parts of the country.

Some of the submissions to the Dearing committee are proposing regionalisation of higher education with separate funding councils, as in Wales and Scotland. If Dearing did adopt such a course, London would be an obvious candidate for its own funding council. There would, however, be intense hostility to Professor Williams's idea for disbanding London University.

Professor Graham Zellick, vice-chancellor of Queen Mary and Westfield College, who takes over this autumn as vice-chancellor of London University, is horrified at the prospect. "It has taken us several years to move away from a system that was rigid, costly and inefficient, and that everybody recognised was dysfunctional and did nothing to promote value for money or the highest academic standards," he says. "We have gone to a great deal of trouble to restructure and reorganise our university."

He fears that allowing three elite institutions to opt out would make the remaining colleges of London University very different from what they are now, risking turning them into mediocre or second-rate institutions.

"I tell you that is absolute anathema to us. Other heads of colleges and I will fight against it with every ounce of energy we can muster."

Professor Zellick is not convinced that the links between London institutions are as tenuous as the critics make out. Three universities - the University of East London, Queen Mary and Westfield and Guildhall University - are collaborating in a new University of East London campus in the heart of Docklands. Frank Gould, UEL's vice-chancellor, has raised pounds 30m from outside sources, and the other two partners will help with teaching. Outside London, particularly in the North-east and North-west, universities are actively assisting in the economic regeneration of their regions. That is made easier by the fact that such regions qualify for European Union funding. In the North-east, for example, the Yorkshire and Humberside Universities Association has been set up by nine institutions. According to Colin Mellors, pro-vice-chancellor of Bradford University, which is one of those involved, collaboration used to be concentrated on individual projects, and has now become much more strategic.

Research undertaken for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, to be considered by the Dearing committee this weekend, shows universities to be keen on closer links. A survey, to which 66 universities responded, found, however, that they differed in how much collaboration they wanted. The CVCP examined four areas: Scotland, Greater Manchester, London, and Yorkshire and Humberside.

It found some universities expressing many more reservations than others about the ease with which collaboration could be pursued.

In Manchester, for example, four universities share library facilities and are moving towards a fully co-ordinated acquisitions policy. They also operate G-Ming, the Greater Manchester network, which connects them electronically and has meant gaining more money from Europe than they would separately.

Professor Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, argues that collaboration benefits students. "Where two or three universities are situated side by side it may be that together they give a student a better experience," he says. But collaboration also promotes value for money, because expensive research and other equipment can be shared. It is for such reasons that Ron Dearing is so keen on collaboration, he believes.

There are indications that fiercely independent institutions in London will increasingly extend a helping hand to one another. The M25 group, comprising 40 institutions, has agreed that academic staff may use one another's libraries, for reference only. It is a tiny step, but it may be a sign of things to comen