He dismissed fears that the 150-year-old London University federation could disintegrate as its major institutions - notably Imperial College - declared their independence.
The project in the Malaysian capital was one proof of the vitality and benefits of the university, Professor Sutherland said. He clearly hopes that the restive institutions, including the London School of Economics and University College, can be persuaded to stay within the fold.
Other projects such as a School of Advanced Studies which would be a national resource were also being promoted now that the university had given more autonomy to its major colleges and 'stopped gazing at its administrative navel', he said. Institutions would stand to lose academic and practical benefits by cutting the link.
A feasibility study of the Kuala Lumpur college has been completed and detailed negotiations are in hand with the Malaysian government and private backers. The college will be a full part of London University and award its degrees.
For the university it is a return to an old tradition; several universities in England and Africa began life as colleges of London University. Some 25,000 students worldwide are registered for external London degrees. The revelation yesterday that Imperial College will review its charter with a view to leaving London University stung Professor Sutherland into a defence of the federal university and criticism of the 'parochial' attitudes that could lead to its break-up.
He insisted that leaving the university was only one option being considered by Imperial College but added: 'We don't want conscripts so that argument has to be won.'
Sir Eric Ash, Rector of Imperial College, referred to the university's bureaucracy as making him feel 'trapped in a Kafka novel' and said that confidence in the university's ability to deal efficiently and equitably with college business had been stretched to breaking point. Complaints about the waste of time and money of a federal structure were echoed by Derek Roberts, Provost of University College. Professor Sutherland said that as a former head of King's College, London, he shared these frustrations and had moved to reduce the complexity of the bureaucracy, cutting the 'tax' to central administration by 50 per cent in two years.
'It will go down to as near zero as common sense and good practice indicate. It gives the schools much greater flexibility and speed of response,' he said.
Imperial College already receives its budget directly from the Universities Funding Council and seven more colleges will soon do so. The university promoted 'subsidiarity' long before the European Community, he said.
But the colleges gained added value from the specialist institutes attached to London University. The proposal to combine several of them into a School of Advanced Studies to promote humanities and social science research is being considered by the funding council and will be pressed on Nigel Forman, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Education, next week by Professor Sutherland. 'To an engineer at Imperial that might not cut much ice but it is a very important national resource,' he said.
'Do Imperial want to put themselves in a position where none of their students would be able to use the intercollegiate halls of residence. Could they afford to?'
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