The Comment Page

Just a start -more soon

A teacher's experience  |    Denis Noble, CBE, FRS  |    Denise Lievesley, UNESCO  |    Dan Jacobson
Phyllis Gardner MD (Stanford)  |    Robert S Eisenberg, (Chicago)  |    Comments by Provost

More on reductions in staff and student numbers

Paul Davis (Lecturer, Department of English) writes as follows.

I am spending this term visiting non-fee-paying schools as part of the English department's response to the three-year government funding for 'Widening Participation' initiatives. Judging by what I'm hearing in classrooms in a number of the strongest state schools in the London area, plenty of teachers are already advising their students against applying to UCL in the present circumstances. They see the writing on the wall, and argue - reasonably enough - that it would be unfair of them to expect their students to take the risk of having their undergraduate studies disrupted if/ when the merger goes through.

From Denise Lievesley (Professor, Director of Statistics at UNESCO, Past president, Royal Statistical Society, Fellow of UCL)

May I mention some aspects which have particularly concerned me.

First the fact that UCL has only an interim Provost puts it at a disadvantage in the negotiations. It is in my view exactly the wrong time for UCL to enter into the discussions.

The second is that the Research Councils and other bodies tend to spread their funding round and ensure no one University gets too much - the merger of UCL and IC could result in less research money not more.

UCL and IC are different - they appeal to different sorts of staff and students. That is good. We need to have a diverse educational system. I have the greatest respect for both institutions and don't want to see the dilution of aims and purposes which would in my view result from the merging of identities.

From Denis Noble CBE, FRS, Hon FRCP (Burdon-Sanderson Professor of Physiology, University of Oxford, Fellow of UCL)

This is a personal view, but it is based on talking with a number of academics and other colleagues in a variety of universities and other institutions here in the UK and abroad.

First, no-one seems to think that this proposal would even be on the table if the funding problems of UK universities were not so acute. Could anyone imagine Harvard and MIT making such a proposal? Not a bad comparison (one strong across all the faculties including humanities, the other strong in science and technology). Or Rockefeller and any other New York City university? Let's be clear. This is a finance-driven proposal. It has little to commend it academically.

Second, one of the reasons that it has little to commend itself academically is that it will reduce the total number of premier universities in the UK. We are going to lose UCL and ICL (two acknowledged prestigious brand names in the UK) for the sake of a hoped-for new “University of London” (for whatever joint name is chosen that is what the new institution will be seen as abroad). The history of both institutions, and their own troubled attempts to break free of the old University of London straightjacket, has been in exactly the opposite direction to the proposal. The name, incidentally, seems to me to be a major problem. The most natural one (i.e. London University) is presumably not available. It will take ages to establish the brand identity using any other name.

Third, it will destabilise the UK university system, primarily by creating great uncertainty within UCL in particular. UCL has most to give up because it is the more genuinely 'collegiate' institution with its magnificent range of faculties. My prediction is that the rest of the University sector in the UK will be looking to pick up the spoils.

Finally, it doesn't make sense unless there are hoped-for and very substantial cut-backs and efficiency gains at both ICL and UCL. Whatever the proposers may say now, that must be the underlying rationale. I also suspect that is why there is such a rush to push the proposal through. The more people explore the consequences the more uneasy they will be. I also imagine that very few currently employed at UCL and ICL will be brave enough to speak their real minds. That is why those strongly attached to UCL but not dependent on it for employment should speak out.

I have been proud to be a Fellow of UCL since 1986. I also regard it as my academic source, with which I have remained in good contact for all the years I have been at Oxford since graduating at UCL. I will find it very difficult indeed to express such loyalty to a merged institution. Imagine Oxford and Cambridge destroying their brand names and loyalty credit in this way.

From Dan Jacobson (Author and critic, Professor of English UCL, 1986-1994)

One would find it hard to say which is the more unattractive aspect of the proposed merger: its philistinism towards UCL's distinctive history or the spirit of corporate elephantiasis it displays.

From Phyllis Gardner MD (Stanford University and Director of Biotech companies)

I am happy to be a signatory. The Stanford/UCSF merger experience, which ended in ignominious failure and an enormous debt, stands as a stark warning of blithely merging two distinct academic cultures, particularly when they are not geographically co-localized. It sounds like folly to me!.
[see also Stanford comment,and
"MEDICINE: Financial difficulties cause Stanford to back out of medical merger with UCSF", and
"UCSF/Stanford: Marriage was rough; divorce is expensive", San Francisco Business Times

From Professor Robert S Eisenberg, (Ph.D. in Biophysics, UCL, 1962-1965)

The forced merger of academic institutions is, in my experience, and that of my country (USA) is nearly always motivated by attempts to save money and these attempts usually fail.

If the merger comes from bottom up, it is unforced and usually works. I have experienced both.

First success: in an exceedingly tricky political environment, involving multiple levels of government, government dishonesty more common (by far) in the USA than in the UK, and explicit ethnic rivalries (again more common by far in the USA than in the UK), the de facto merger of the University of Illinois Medical School (budget approximately $200 million per year), Rush Medical Center (budget approximately $1.2 billion per year), and Cook County Hospital (budget approximately $1 billion per year) has worked very well, precisely because there has been NO ATTEMPT at overall institutional merger. Individual departments have found a way to work together and merge resources and create efficiencies.

Such results are not pleasing to administrators because the efficiencies are hard to demonstrate: after all they were designed to work, not to draw opposition, and were not designed to be visible!

Second, failure. In every case I know top down mergers have failed to create efficiency for a simple reason: they neglect economic and behavioral realities. Economically, efficiencies occur when overlap is removed. If overlap is not present, efficiencies cannot be produced; costs can be cut, but only by decreasing function. In many cases, costs are determined "by the means of production". If the inputs and outputs do not change, the means of production is not changed, and costs do not change.

Behaviorally, forced mergers fail because they neglect friction. When humans are asked to change institutional arrangements, uproar occurs which is itself often much more costly than possible efficiencies. I had always hoped that the UK was more mature than the USA and less subject to fads and fancies, particularly those motivated by administrators who wish to "look good". I urge rejection of the forced merger.

"Do good" is the goal, not "look good."

A reply from Sir Derek Roberts

These comments followed a meeting between DR and representatives of CUCL on 5th November (see Minutes). The numbering of these comment corresponds to the paragraphs in the Arguments against a merger section.

1) This is misleading, assuming worst-case disposition of activities in order to rubbish it.

2) Before judging, wait and see what emerges on "core values"/ethos.

3) Quite wrong. Deliberately sets up false proposition just to knock it down. Again, wait and see proposals for the process to explore academic linkages and any consequential re-siting.

4) Imperial does better in engineering and science where we overlap. The "700 medical student intake " is another scare tactic. The Bio-Medical Group are viewing the increased scale as a great opportunity to offer diversity in medical education.

5) Some will be attracted; some won't. Phrases like "run on corporation lines" are totally meaningless - more scare tactics.

6) What makes Harvard good is its wealth. That is what we have to compete with.

7) DoH/NHS are being consulted. Why not wait to hear their views? Far from obvious why "increased funding would be necessary".

8) There are arguments for and against. I presented both in my original SWOT analysis.

9) Their comments are beneath contempt. If the writer knows as little about the pharmaceutical industry as he does about the electrical industry he would do better to concentrate on challenging the original background briefing, of which he was so dismissive, to say nothing of the subsequent papers about which he says 'he is unaware'.

Derek Roberts

More on reductions in staff and student numbers

It is obvious that merger would reduce the number and diversity of universities. Although we regard as paramount the long term issues of reduction in diversity and choice, and the desirability of complete multi-faculty education, it is certainly true that many questions have been asked about possible reductions in numbers of students and staff. It is unfortunate, therefore, that these issues are not mentioned on the list of 'frequently asked questions' (FAQs) either on the official Imperial College site or on the official UCL site. It is unfortunate too, that rather different accounts of what will happen have been emerging from UCL and IC.

The email that describes a senate meeting at Imperial College (see the SAVEUCL site) states that, according to Richard Sykes. There will be job losses and there will be fewer students overall taught - although interestingly "not from Imperial"

On 13th November, the heads of departments in UCL's Faculty of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and Faculty of Engineering, met Derek Roberts and Richard Sykes.
Reports form this meeting include the following comment.

"At this meeting Sykes confirmed that the merger would result in "fewer staff and fewer students" . This really does invalidate Derek Roberts original claim that the merger would not result in "Downsizing". If UCL staff have been misled over this, what other mis-information is on the official website."

"he [Sykes]he) not saying there will be no redundancies". Indeed, when pushed he spoke about 30% reductions in student numbers and 30% reduction in staff numbers"