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Startling email from IC on SAVEUCL web site

The proposed 'merger' of UCL and Imperial College

The end of 175 years of a Benthamite multi-faculty university?

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This document is an attempt to state the case for and against merger in plain English, and to aid the process of gathering the views of those most affected by the proposals to merge with IC. This proposal originated in talks between Derek Roberts (DR) and Richard Sykes (RS), and started only a few weeks ago. UCL's provost, within months of taking office for this, the last year of his association with the college, appears to have agreed with RS's initiative that, if passed by Council, would end UCL's existence (“After half an hour he [RS] said, "Why don't we cut through all this and explore a merger to create a world-leader? "My [DR] instant reply was positive”).. A press announcement was made on October 14th, before Council had met. At a meeting of academic board (AB) on Thursday 18th October, the Academic Board was notified of what DR and RS wished to do, there was little opportunity for consultation.

The search for a new provost was immediately suspended. DR states “Assuming a favourable decision by the Councils in December, the aim would be to have a unified management structure, under Sir Richard, in place by October 2003”. If this were to happen, UCL would have lost any say in the choice of its head.

The college has offered the option to staff of e-mailing comments to the steering group for the merger ("If you have any comments or questions about the proposals please email") and, although we welcome this, we feel that such a move does not satisfy the need for open discussion. As a result this web site has been started to provide a forum for the consideration of these issues in a way that has so far been notably absent from either UCL or IC.

Opinions expressed in UCL over the past two weeks have tended to fall into one of two camps. Some people concentrate on the pros and cons for their current research. Others tend to argue on the basis of what universities should be like in the next 100 years. Many people have described these events as a take-over bid, rather than a merger (see para 9); but whatever they are called they will, if successful, represent a turning point in the history of the college.


· Merger would mean that the UK would lose a University that has all departments on one site

· Choice and diversity would be reduced: two different institutions would be replaced by one.

· Separation of departments would harm multi-disciplinary research

· Some of the most creative people may not be attracted to work in an enormous corporate university on two widely separated sites.

· The best US universities are not of the enormous size that would result from merger

· The loss of alumni loyalty (and bequests) could take a generation to repair.

Arguments for a merger

The idea of merger cannot be dismissed out of hand. Sometimes mergers make sense and, thanks to the efforts of Derek Roberts and of many others, we have had a lot of them. Further obvious possibilities exist in the Bloomsbury area. Mergers make sense if one partner is smaller and/or less successful, and if it wishes to merge, and if it is geographically close. In this case none of these apply. Both UCL and IC are large, both are successful, neither has shown any wish to merge before this sudden explosion of activity, and they are far apart (an inconvenient 2-tube line journey).

The only arguments for merger that have been presented so far are 'briefing document', DR's speech to the Academic Board, and on the College web site (most of it not public). Their merits are best left for the reader to judge.

The gist of the argument appears to be that UCL would be in some sense 'left behind' if it does not merge. However, it is not clear what form this threat would take. Presumably the same people would carry on with much the same work whether merged or not, and would continue to get grants as before. Is there any implicit threat that our funds will be reduced if we do not merge? At present there seems to be no reason to believe that there is. Funds come through the HEFCE funding council and it is hardly possible to imagine that that their decisions are being formed by UCL's continued existence as an independent organisation.

If there is indeed a real threat to UCL from not merging then it is certainly the duty of the proponents of merger to spell it out clearly. This has not been done.

The briefing document refers to the “increasing globalisation of education and research. The term globalisation has been used a lot by both the proponents of merger but the meaning of this word has not been explained in plain English. It presumably does not mean we will have a branch in every high street like McDonalds, and research has been global (international) for decades now.

There are, no doubt, for certain departments or individuals, advantages to be gained from a close association with IC (and, indeed, many of us already have made such arrangements and plan to continue to do so). However our view is that it is very short-sighted to consider the pros and cons of any merger solely in terms of the immediate advantage for an academic's (or a department's) own research. We are discussing a much bigger question, the future of UCL - and in some sense the future of British universities in general

Arguments against a merger

(1) Loss of an all-subject university

UCL was established as a complete university (with the exception of theology), with all departments on one site. This is undoubtedly one reason why we, like other complete universities, appeal to many staff and to many students. The College provides a breadth of educational opportunity that cannot be rivalled in any more specialist institution. If any consequence of merger is completely certain, it is that all departments would not be represented on both sites. Part of IC might indeed come to Bloomsbury, but when large sections of UCL go to South Kensington a successful complete university would be severely damaged, if not destroyed. The geographical argument is important here. It is a matter of simple observation that neither staff nor students now move much between the two campuses for lectures or seminars; and that will certainly continue to be the case in a merged institution, whatever pressures are brought to bear.

(2) Loss of diversity and choice

UCL and IC have very different origins and different ethos. Words like ethos are not fashionable in some circles today, but they are in part what makes many of us work for low pay in central London, and they are also what make some people want to give money to places such as our own. Although the terms were dismissed as irrelevant at the Academic Board meeting, others see their value. On this topic, a recent Nature editorial states

"UCL and Imperial College each have distinct identities that inspire strong loyalty among students, staff and alumni. . . . -these identities are of value, and should not be discarded lightly." (Nature 419, 763. 2002) .

Regardless of such abstract ideas, the effect of a merger would be to replace two rather different institutions with one. The result would be a reduction of choice for both students and staff. So much for diversity. Too often, the real world of industry pays lip service to competition but expends much effort to produce monopolies which, most people agree, are unhealthy. Universities should not make that mistake. Unless it is proposed to run more courses than the sum of those now offered in both places already, choice of courses will be reduced too.

(3) Effects on interdisciplinary research

Some argue that merger would increase opportunities for interdisciplinary research, but because neither site would be a complete university, it is inevitable that many departments that are at present close to each other will be separated. Thus at least as many opportunities for interdisciplinary research would be lost as would be gained.

It remains to be seen what division of subjects between sites will be proposed, but one possibility that has been discussed is that arts and biomedicine will concentrate at UCL and physical sciences, engineering and maths at Imperial. That will, at the very least, damage two highly inter-disciplinary programmes at UCL, the bioengineering department, and the CoMPLEX group that promotes collaboration between mathematicians, physical scientists and biologists (something that attracts grants). Under the new arrangement the relevant departments would be so far apart that casual contact would vanish. One response to this criticism is that many sorts of collaborations can easily be carried out by email now. That is often true but to the extent to which it is true, it makes mergers quite irrelevant to interdisciplinary collaboration. It also neglects the fact that many such collaborations arise in the first place from casual contacts that would vanish with the proposed separation of departments.

(4) Effects on student numbers

UCL's best-kept secret is its difficulty in attracting students for many subjects - including those taught by academically highly distinguished departments. We have fewer applicants per place than universities such as Nottingham or Bristol. School-children in general know or care very little about university research; and for UCL they are put off by the expense and difficulty of attending a large and intimidating organisation in central London. It is hard to see that doubling its size and spreading it over several square miles is going to do anything to improve this. The prospect of enormous classes (over 700 medical students?), the possibility of long-distance commuting between lectures, the loss of all-faculty status, and the divorce of teaching and research implicit in corporate organisation will all make a mega-university less attractive.

Many people are very sceptical about the claim that the merger would produce, in student terms, an institution that was greater than the sum of its parts. Mergers are always advertised as 2 + 2 = 5, but usually end up as 2 + 2 = 3 . In all probability the total number of students (and staff) would turn out to be smaller in total, whatever is said in the enthusiasm for merger. It is surely one of the best-known things about take-overs that the advertised economies rarely materialise (unless a lot of people are fired). This would not be consistent with government's aim to increase student numbers.

(5) Attractiveness for staff

It is asserted in the 'briefing document' that the merged mega-university would be more attractive to staff. That statement is not self evident and no facts are produced to back it up. If (and only if) the promised facilities and equipment were delivered, the new university might well be attractive, especially to people in 'big science' that requires very expensive equipment. On the other hand many of the most creative people will not want to work in an enormous institution run on corporate lines, with its concomitant tendency to top-down setting of strategy and lack of local accountability and management. We know from our colleagues at IC that such changes are already under way there and this rush to merger with little consultation of those most involved suggests that the new institution would be no different.

(6) Size and quality

The advocates of the merger repeatedly say that the 'super university' will “break the hegemony of Oxford and Cambridge” or that it will “rival Harvard”. Both UCL and IC are already big and to suggest that making them bigger will have any such effects is –at best –no more than an assertion. The fact that the budget is, on paper, larger than that of Oxford is unlikely, of itself, to impress anybody.

Comparisons with Harvard have been invoked frequently by proponents of merger. The medical intake at Harvard is about 165, half that of UCL alone at present, and a far more attractive proposition for undergraduates than over 700. Harvard has 6650 undergraduates, 3358 graduate students and 9351 in graduate entry subjects (law, medicine, business etc). Clearly it is not size that makes Harvard good (well, perhaps its relatively small size helps).

An editorial in Nature points out that

“However, the élite US research universities -Harvard, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, would rank on most people’s lists- are not in fact the largest in terms of their annual research spending. In fact, few members of this group currently spend much more than either UCL or Imperial.”
(Looking after number one: A merger of University College London and Imperial College, the top two research universities in Britain’s capital city, may not in itself create a combined institution that is more internationally competitive. Nature 419, 763. 2002)

(7) The medical school and the NHS

The medical schools are a big part of both UCL and IC and it is hard to see how they could possibly fuse without huge expense. Both are dependent on research income from the Department of Health and on support from the Department of Health for medical teaching. It is quite possible that the Department of Health could take the view that this enormous concentration of academic medicine in a small part of London could not justify the increased funding that would be necessary. A clear view from the Department of Health should be sought before merger talks go too far, otherwise it will be indulging in a major gamble

(8) Alumni and donations

We have already heard of several alumni who propose to rescind bequests to UCL (in some cases quite large) if UCL no longer exists. It would take a generation for a merged institution to establish an identity and produce alumni of its own who might feel sufficiently loyal to it to leave money.

(9) A brief history of two business mergers

These proposals originate from the heads of our institutions, DR and RS, both of whom have been much involved in mergers in their previous lives in the world of business. The fate of the much-merged GEC, Derek Roberts' previous employers, is well known: it has in effect collapsed. The state of Glaxo-SmithKline (GSK), Richard Sykes' organisation is also less than healthy.

Derek Roberts

In his email of 29-Aug-02, DR said

“HOWEVER, I do not plan any short-term changes”, and
“If, over the next few months I conclude that formal changes are needed, I will discuss those with all directly involved at that time”

It is hard to imagine any greater change than selling off UCL, and so little discussion with those directly involved.

Richard Sykes

On UCL's new official web site DR says "In 1998, Sir Richard Sykes was UCL's first choice to succeed me as Provost". In fact RS withdrew before the final shortlist was drawn up, and was not interviewed formally by the full selection committee.

The enthusiasm of RS for take-over bids is also well known. The most recent, between Glaxo-Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham, is worth a closer look.

At the time, Sir Richard reassured employees that the deal was "about vision - not a cost-cutting exercise". In a precursor to his remarks about Imperial, he spoke of creating a research and development "powerhouse".
But little more than two years on, the unions beg to differ. Glaxo SmithKline has shed more than 15,000 jobs. Instead of creating a "powerhouse", research has been split into smaller, autonomous units - following an admission that size could inhibit scientific creativity.
Ian Gibson, chairman of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, recently threatened to launch an inquiry into the deal, accusing Sir Richard and his colleagues of misleading MPs about their motives for the tie-up. He maintained it was little more than a cost-cutting drive.
Neither has the company lived up to its expectations for investors - a series of drugs have fallen through including Lotronex, a pioneering treatment for irritable bowel disease. The firm faces increasing criticism for its handling of the antidepressant Paxil and since the merger was completed, the shares have fallen by 25%.

(From Andrew Clark,,9830,816263,00.html)

The opinion of the Financial Times is interesting too.

GlaxoSmithKline lost another senior scientist yesterday when James Palmer, the pharmaceuticals group's head of development, announced he was leaving . . . Mr Palmer is the fourth senior executive from GSK's research and development division to leave since the 2000 merger between GlaxoWellcome and SmithKline Beecham. . . . His departure will renew concerns about the implementation of GSK's radical new research department . . . The new structure was a response to a series of failures in research at the two merger partners. . . .The experiment is being closely watched in an industry looking for solutions to a sharp fall in research productivity ”
From headline in Financial Times (22-Oct-02), by Geoff Dyer.

Sagging morale, departing scientists, a dwindling pipeline: when will GSK's research overhaul produce results?
Headline of full page article in Comment and Analysis section, Financial Times 24-Oct-02.

And along the same lines, from the Sunday Times –Business (27-Oct-02)
“It is all a far cry from the promises at the time of the merger. “The past in drug discovery was about serendipity; the future is about predictability,” said Sir Richard Sykes. . . .
Dysfunctional deals
THE merger mania of the late 1990s gripped few industries a strongly as pharmaceuticals but the results have been almost universally poor - at least for shareholders. Most of the deals were presented as companies positioning themselves for the dawn of the new scientific era of genomics. They have turned out to be little more than old-fashioned cost-cutting deals. . . . . As the true rationale has unravelled, so have the share prices. Glaxo Smith Kline is down 40% from its peak”

It was, of course, Richard Sykes who set the research policy of the merged giant.

We feel that much more discussion, and many more hard facts are needed before the academic staff of UCL, who make it what it is, can judge the merits of the proposed merger. Not least we need hard costings of the enormous expenses that would be involved. This web-page is a first step in that direction.


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