Breakaway threatens London University

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London University is on the brink of disintegration as its major institutions prepare to opt out of the 150-year-old federation.

Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine gave notice yesterday of its intention to review its charter with a view to leaving Britain's largest university. University College, the London School of Economics and King's College are likely to follow, leaving the federation, which includes more than 50 colleges and institutes, with little purpose.

Sir Eric Ash, Rector of Imperial College, said: 'Our faith in the ability of the university to deal efficiently and equitably with college business has been stretched, sometimes to near breaking point and occasionally beyond.'

Derek Roberts, provost of University College, speaking 'in a personal capacity' yesterday, said that if any college made a 'bid for freedom' then UCL would be likely to make a similar move. The LSE is believed to share that view.

Without the prestige of these internationally respected institutions, the federation will become less attractive to many of the university's 50 colleges and institutes.

Sir Eric said yesterday: 'If several of the major colleges leave the federation, that would be the end of the University of London. It would be sad to no longer be part of an institution that has a fantastic record of developing liberal education for the best part of a 150 years. But we must look to the future.'

An acrimonious divorce on this scale would place a question mark over the family of specialist schools and institutes - ranging from the School of Oriental and African Studies to the Centre for Defence Studies - that are such a strength of the university.

It is here that the main impact on staff and students would be felt. Students are already complaining that it is becoming harder to pursue specialist courses at these institutes as they begin to charge fees that colleges are unwilling or unable to pay.

New groupings of institutions in London now seem possible, taking in the former polytechnics. Sir Eric spoke in his Commemoration Day address yesterday of new collaborations with the Royal College of Art and the Science and Natural History museums.

These links were exciting and fruitful, he said. 'In contrast, those to the federal University of London seem abstract and sterile . . . so we have resolved to embark on a review of our charter, inter alia, to examine the possibility of a separation from the university.'

Ironically, an upheaval that could affect the entire university system was precipitated by a dispute over a single academic appointment. Sir Eric became frustrated that he could not appoint his own senior staff without the university agreeing. This additional vetting procedure is unique.

It was the last straw for a self- confident and assertive institution that felt itself stifled by the bureaucracy of the university's Senate House headquarters. Sir Eric said: 'It is for the most part benign management, but there is no discernible added value and the additional cost, in effort and time, is far from trivial.' His frustration is echoed by Dr Roberts, who compared the relationship to colonial rule under the British Empire - all very well in its day, but anachronistic in the 1990s.

'There is a lot of unnecessary hassle. There is a waste of time and money involved in having a federal structure. We have a vice- chancellor, a principal and another level of authority. They are all excellent people, but there would be no adverse effect if they all disappeared.'

But London University, threatened with break-up and change on several occasions, has proved resilient and obituaries may be premature. Much will depend on the political skills of Stewart Sutherland, the vice-chancellor, who has struggled to keep the federation together by allowing its colleges, some of them as large and influential as other universities, to assume greater autonomy.