Higher Education: Back from the brink: A streamlined University of London has survived a period of turmoil, says Liz Heron

The University of London has emerged united after a radical programme of change that brought it to the brink of a major split. The alterations in the university's structure, won after Imperial College, University College London and the London School of Economics threatened last summer to leave the 150-year-old federation, have persuaded London's eight largest colleges to remain in the fold.

'We have got through all the constitutional and structural difficulties, and there is a new positive mood,' says Professor Graham Zellick, principal of Queen Mary and Westfield College. 'We can now begin to concentrate on the academic issues that bind the university together.'

The college heads were won over by a shift of financial and academic power that allows colleges to award London University degrees and to make their own appointments. The changes have created a university that is 'confederal, with quasi-autonomous institutions in partnership with a streamlined centre', according to a spokesman for the London School of Economics.

A plan to build on the University of London's strengths in postgraduate teaching and research by assembling 10 of its specialist institutes in a School of Advanced Study has also found strong support among college principals.

The university aims to create a national centre for research in the humanities that would provide research opportunities to academics in teaching-oriented universities and promote collaboration between disciplines. The proposal is being considered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Professor Arthur Lucas, principal of King's College, says: 'The specialist institutes need to be developed, and I would like to see similar organisations developed for some of the sciences.'

Several principals also want to develop intercollegiate teaching at undergraduate level.

Legislation to streamline the way the university is governed is expected to be passed in this parliament, and a financial review of the university's central administrative body is under way.

A steering group, containing a majority of college heads, is deciding how to cut administrative costs by pounds 1m and fund the university's remaining central activities through the colleges, in order to ensure accountability.

The colleges would receive extra money from the funding council to cover an annual subscription to the university and charges for particular services. Detailed proposals will be sent to the funding council later this month.

Professor Stuart Sutherland, the vice-chancellor, has confirmed that 27 jobs at Senate House, including some senior posts, are likely to be lost in 1995. 'But our record so far in slimming down at the centre, through early retirements and redeployment of staff, is good. There have been no compulsory redundancies and I want to keep it like that,' he says.

The review is based on an independent study of the university's central administration, jointly commissioned by the funding council and the university from the accountancy firm Touche Ross. The council has endorsed the study's findings and its conclusion that the administration is providing value for money.

Touche Ross also gave glowing value-for-money reports on the university library and student union. It found that the library had an important role as a national research centre, and recommended that the higher education funding council continue to fund it directly.

Last month's recommendation in the Follett report on university libraries that up to pounds 10m should be available for the support of research collections with a national role will further boost the library's prospects.

Worries persist, however, about the future of the University of London Union, which Touche Ross said should be funded by the schools and colleges. Simon Rix, president of the union, fears that some colleges may opt out or make a reduced contribution, regardless of the union's popularity. 'It is the heads of colleges who must decide about funding us, and what is at the top of their agenda is the internal concerns of colleges,' he says.

Professor Sutherland, who leaves next summer to become vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University, has done much to ensure the university's survival. 'From the beginning, I realised we had to do two things - provide the schools with the responsibilities and freedoms that they properly wanted, but none the less retain the added value in the federal university. The trick was finding a way of doing both.'

He struck a deal with the large colleges that reduced the amount of college funds taken by the university to use as it sees fit from pounds 20m to less than pounds 1m over two years; in September, this will shrink further to pounds 270,000. Last August the eight large colleges won the right to negotiate directly with HEFCE, instead of through the university.

Professor Sutherland called the bluff of the college principals who had threatened to leave the federation. He presented the senate with three options last July, designed to test how far the rebels were prepared to go. One would have given the colleges the right to award their own degrees, thereby breaking up the university; the second would have given them university titles while allowing them to remain within the federation.

But in November, the senate voted overwhelmingly in favour of his third proposal: to retain the University of London degree, but devolve the power of awarding it and of appointing chairs and readers to the colleges.

Dr Derek Roberts, provost of University College London, says: 'Had the senate rejected the report to transfer degree- awarding powers to the colleges, several of the larger colleges would have applied to the Privy Council for the power to award their own degrees. UCL stands in direct comparison to any university in the country, and it was ludicrous not to have the power to award degrees and appoint chairs.'

(Photograph omitted)

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