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Imperial values

The proposal to create a super-university in London would only benefit Imperial College; what UCL needs is a proper provost

By Kathleen Burk   December 2002

Apprehension is growing at University College London (UCL) about the proposed merger with Imperial College. The proposal was first made by temporary provost, Derek Roberts, in the middle of October; a decision was scheduled for the meeting of the councils of the two universities on 19th December. When asked why such speed was necessary, Roberts said that it was better to focus minds on the question and end damaging speculation.

Roberts was provost of UCL from 1989 to 1999. He was succeeded by Christopher Llewellyn Smith who, in August, fell victim to intense dissatisfaction among UCL staff. Roberts was brought back as a caretaker until a new provost could be hired. Once the proposed merger was announced, the committee to find a new provost was suspended, and all discussions have been carried out on the basis, explicitly stated by Roberts, that Richard Sykes, the rector of Imperial, would head the merged institution. Roberts has urged that UCL agree to the merger, because otherwise it would be without a head.

The arguments of Roberts and Sykes for the merger are, on the face of it, logical. They believe that the two institutions would no longer compete for limited research funds and would be able to compete on a world scale. In fact, they believe that it is only by this merger that Britain would have a “world-class” institution. They also believe that a merger would attract government support and hint that it would attract the funds to implement it (over ?100m according to Roberts).

For Imperial, it is only by acquiring UCL’s powerful faculties of arts and humanities, social sciences and law that it can have any claim to be a university in the broad sense. Currently constituting 15 per cent of UCL, these faculties would constitute only 8 per cent of the merged institution. UCL staff are acutely aware of the inferior position held by the humanities staff at Imperial and fear that they would be treated similarly. Roberts has replied by saying that not only would these faculties not suffer, but that a merger is the only way of improving their position. He has stated that many of the scientists and engineers would be transferred to Imperial’s south Kensington site, and that the other departments would take up the vacated space.

This is an attractive argument to the UCL humanities staff, but it would depend on the willingness of Sykes to make resources available, and his record in this sector is not encouraging. Furthermore, instead of a multifaculty university, there would effectively be two ghettos, with the sciences and engineering at Imperial in south Kensington and the arts, humanities, law and social sciences at UCL in Bloomsbury; the medics would be somewhere in the middle. What’s the point?

Scientists, engineers and medics at UCL are also becoming aware that they, too, might be at risk. Both institutions are centres of excellence, but the assumption seems to be that Imperial values will dominate. Both Imperial and UCL are on sites which limit expansion: if two physics departments are amalgamated, for example, on which site would staff be settled? And what would happen to all of those who could not fit into the buildings? The provost insists that there would be no redundancies, arguing that the idea is to build on existing strengths. But there is evidence that this is not Imperial’s intention. Members of one department at UCL have already been told by Imperial decision-makers that only some of them will be kept. Medics are keenly aware of the baleful outcome for some of the medical schools absorbed by Imperial.

In more general terms, what UCL staff fear is the loss of the distinctive UCL heritage, its diversity (it includes the Institute of Archaeology, the Slade School of Art, and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies), its multidisciplinary character and its ethos. UCL was established in 1826 specifically as a secular, liberal institution, the first to admit women as full members of a university, the first to admit Jews, the first to admit Catholics. It is, by tradition, egalitarian and democratic. Neither of these adjectives are ordinarily applied to Imperial.

When close collaboration between the two already exists, why merge? Where is the added value? A proper argument has not been made, only the assertion that bigger is better-a principle not borne out by most business mergers, in particular by Sykes’s past endeavours in the pharmaceutical sector. How will it be costed? No industrial merger would be contemplated before a business plan was in place. How can such an unwieldy institution be managed, without the imposition of bureaucratic structures that would threaten the freedom to innovate? Why should students want to come to such a behemoth? In the arguments for a merger, the word “teaching” has been notable by its absence.

Having begun by trying to force the pace, there is now an attempt to slow it down; to say that, after all, 19th December is not so crucial, that a later vote would be possible. But in reality, a decision to extend discussion actually means a “yes” to the merger, because there will be no provost at UCL and Sykes would step into the position. It would be far better to reinstate the search for a new provost, in order to have one in place to protect UCL’s interests while a full range of options are calmly considered.

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