Spare London's Colleges from Merger Mania; Imperial College Is Planning to Swallow UCL and Create a 'Super-Versity'. This Is a Businessman's Ambition Run Mad

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Byline: SIMON JENKINS

CHAOS is about to descend on London's universities.

For decades these strange beasts, big and small, have grazed peacefully on Government subsidy. Now they are starving and have gone berserk.

Imperial College wants to gobble up University College. A decision will be made in December. King's is looking longingly at LSE, which is looking to Imperial for protection. The old federal " University of London", which merely gives them all degrees, is surely doomed. Imperial has even demanded its title.

Smaller fry such as Birkbeck and Royal Holloway may simply disappear.

More dramatic is that proper student fees are no longer a dream but a certainty. The Government's horror of middleclass parents has kept fees hopelessly low at pound sterling1,100 and driven universities close to bankruptcy.

UCL is facing an pound sterling8 million deficit. It is demanding to be allowed to charge pound sterling7,000 a year. Even with bursaries for the poor, there will be student uproar and riots in the streets.

Why Imperial and UCL should need to merge is a mystery to me, and to most of their collective workforce of 30,000 staff and students. One is mostly scientific and in South Kensington, the other is multidisciplinary and in Bloomsbury. Both are already in the Top Ten.

THEY have little in common beyond large medical schools, which nobody will dare rationalise because they are run by the most conservative academics on earth, doctors. Besides, any research overlap could be eliminated by those handing out research grants. But the two colleges share one feature. They are led by business-oriented principals, Sir Richard Sykes from GlaxoSmithKline and Sir Derek Roberts from Plessey/ GEC. Both hail from the bigis-beautiful age of British industry in the 1980s, when "mergers and acquisitions" were the rage. They are stuck in the past.

Sir Derek returned to UCL as provost this summer after a staff putsch toppled his predecessor, Sir Chris Llewellyn-Smith. He will retire next spring and thought it might be nice if his chum, Sir Richard at Imperial, combined the two jobs. In which case, why not combine the institutions?

London universities are like German palatinates. Thousands of serfs can change owners at the whim of a prince or the turn of a hand of cards.

The strategy is that Imperial cuts out UCL's dead wood and pockets its research grants. For Sir Richard a university is a drugs company.

He could call his new empire Glob-U or Unron. The rationale is set out in his message to Imperial's staff, written entirely in consultancy Birtspeak.

It is stuffed with globalisation, critical masses, broad profiles and worldwide solutions. Apart from an explicit desire to cut out competition common to all monopolists, the only apparent reason for the merger is the beauty of sheer bigness.

The new "super-versity" would have a research budget of pound sterling406 million, which is bigger than that of Oxford and Cambridge combined.

To which I say, so what? …