A new stage for the last federal university

Federal universities were once the major organising principle of British and Irish Higher Education.  At the turn of the 20th century we had four teaching universities (the Scottish universities), three collegiate examining universities (Cambridge, Durham and Oxford) and four federal examining universities (London, Royal University of Ireland, Victoria and Wales).  The examining universities were organised such that colleges undertook the teaching and the university examined the students.  The federal universities had emerged to ensure the standards at individual colleges, and was successfully growing a wide range of provision across England, Ireland and Wales.

In 1900 however, Birmingham got its own charter, not joining a proposed new federal university for the West.  That precipitated the demise of the Victoria University.  The Royal University split between the National University of Ireland and Queen’s Belfast.  Wales continued as a federation until a 2007 restructure as the main colleges became independent.  This leaves London.


London was the compromise following the founding of the two rivals: UCL and Kings.  Created as a government department to award degrees, it has gone through multiple phases of allowing internal and external students to its examinations.  These were hotly contested, not least through the ability of former students to participate in the debates through a powerful Convocation.

The past 40 years have seen a decline in the federal principle – colleges now award their own degrees, receive their own funding and operate as if they are universities in their own right.  Some shared services persist, but others, such as the University of London Union, have been disbanded as unnecessary (and often unhelpful) duplications. Imperial College (which hadn’t been keen when it was made to join the University) left in 2006 to become a separate university.  In 2016 City University gave up being a university in order to join the University of London – swapping its Chancellor for a Rector and its Vice-Chancellor for a President.

But this remains a curious situation.  UCL, which calls itself ‘London’s Global University’, isn’t strictly a university.  The University of London bill, up for second reading in the House of Commons, changes this again.  The bill is about the way the University of London makes statutes, changing its governance – but the primary purpose is in clause two, introducing a new measure.

“Member Institution” means an educational, academic or research institution
which is a constituent member of the University and has for the time
     (a) the status of a college under the statutes; or
     (b) the status of a university;

This will allow universities to be member institutions of the University of London.  The evidence supplied to the House of Lords notes

This legal situation stems from the University’s history and the description of the MIs [Member Institutions] as “Colleges” is now anomalous and unhelpful. The “College” descriptor also creates reputational difficulties for the MIs in the modern higher education landscape where private and alternative providers find it relatively easy to enter the market, as recognised universities.

Any MI could choose to leave the federation in order to achieve separate university status (as Imperial had to in 2006), but this would weaken the federal University and disadvantage the MI forced into that position. The MIs need to be able to obtain university title, but they wish to remain within the federation: Imperial did not have that choice.

The transcript of the Bill Committee highlights the confusion.  Richard Bull of Pinsent Masons explains that 12 of the members are currently applying to be universities but that although King’s College wants to be a university it doesn’t want to change it’s name, just as Imperial College hasn’t.  Maureen Bolan (Secretary of the University of London) explained:

It can call itself King’s College if it wants to, or just King’s, but it will have university status and it will be on a par with the new providers that are reaching levels of quality and student experience that are nothing in comparison to King’s

Then in relation to the LSE:

LSE, for example, quotes the situation that it often encounters, particularly overseas, where it is the London School of Economics: “So it’s a school?” “No it’s not, it’s a college”. “It’s a college?” “It’s not really, because it’s really a university”. For all practical purposes, it is a university. This sheds light on an anachronism.

Sometimes UCL and Kings are missed from lists of universities because they are not themselves universities.  It clearly it must irk some of the member institutions that new providers are universities and these internationally famous places are not.

There’s some fun to come – City will change back to being a university, but will it get its Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor back?  Perhaps this could allow other universities to federate – could branch campuses get university title and stay inside the group?  It’s unlikely that the second reading will repeat the major parliamentary discussions that happened in the past (except, perhaps, on the issue of representation on the board of trustees).  Meanwhile our last federal university will go on, with one fewer anachronism in its complex arrangements.

Update on Parliamentary ‘Progress’

The bill was introduced in the House of Lords, completing all its stages on 3 May 2018.  It had its first reading in the Commons on the same day, but its second reading has been postponed thereafter as an objection is made each time its scheduled for business. In the Commons a private bill can pass second reading if uncontested.  Sir Christopher Chope (he of the famous philosophy of objecting to private members bills on ‘principle’) objected to that so it was bounced on 14, 21 and 28 June, 3, 10 and 17 July, 3 September and 9 October before finally getting a second reading on 16 October 2018.