UCL News


Simon Jenkins on the Battle of Bloomsbury: "If I were UCL…"

2 December 2005

Simon Jenkins: The University of London is a pointless institution that has let Bloomsbury become steeped in squalor The Battle of Bloomsbury is joined.

Next week Imperial College is expected to celebrate its centenary by voting to withdraw from a strange body called the University of London. It may soon be followed by the latter's progressive collapse as other London 'big beasts', such as UCL, King's and LSE, opt for independent status. The LSE is now a private university in all but name.

The government is believed to want the University of London to go, if only to save money and sell property (the default objective of all modern administration). The clearest indication is an audit by the Quality Assurance Agency, expected to notify the university next month of "limited confidence" in its degree oversight. This is anomalous since degrees are awarded by the 19 constituent colleges and only nominally granted by the university. Soon the right to call themselves separate universities will be granted to the colleges.

The University of London is rather like the Commonwealth, a relic of history and desperate for a role. It was set up early in the 19th century to ensure Oxbridge standards at the new London colleges. This is no longer required. The university does no teaching, has no students and distributes no money. Its £100m-a-year turnover goes mostly on running student residences, handling overseas degrees, being a landlord and servicing 29 committees. None requires a 'university'. This academic Soviet Union, located in Charles Holden's Stalinist Senate House in Malet Street, is disintegrating. But as the vultures gather, what is there for the picking?

The answer is Bloomsbury. This enclave is London's academic campus, its Harvard Yard, of which it is a miserable parody. When brick Bloomsbury ceded fashion to stucco Belgravia it became a place of earnest intellectualism, of the Bloomsbury set and utilitarian University College (now UCL). David Piper remarked in the 60s that the very name of the area "has a certain magic fall, as if of a settling of spent but still fragrant petals, or russet leaves on to damp earth".

Today a once-dignified Georgian suburb has been wrecked by rat-run traffic and 20th-century academic buildings. Scholars have proved even worse patrons of architecture than soldiers or ministers. The neighbourhood east of Gower Street now embraces UCL, Birkbeck, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Institute of Education, Rada and numerous scientific schools. It is guarded beyond by the scholastic powerhouses of the British Museum, Wellcome Trust and British Library. UCL alone has 25,000 students and staff. Other establishments add as many again. It must be the largest concentration of academic talent in Europe.

Yet this has become one of the bleakest parts of central London. The University of London took over ownership from the Bedford estate between the wars and set about destroying what had been a graceful, secluded area. New blocks were thrown up in the cheapest design. Gardens were occupied with prefabs. No attempt was made to plan the campus as a whole.

Since then every planning blunder has been committed. The university demolished Georgian terraces at will. It erected the Senate House that, legend has it, Hitler pinpointed as his London headquarters (and thus sadly did not bomb). The dominant tower is used only for book storage and requires £46m for rewiring alone. All but its grand foyers should be demolished.

Such Bloomsbury jewels as St George's, the [UCL] Petrie [Museum of Egyptian Archaeology] and Percival David museums, the Church of Christ the King and the UCL portico are lost in the gloom. None of the streets works as a pedestrian space. The recent clearing of traffic from Malet Street and Montague Place created not lively piazzas but a tarmacked wilderness. At the core of the campus, Woburn and Gordon squares suffer from the most hideous postwar architecture, the grass surrounded by car parking and chicken wire. The west side of Woburn Square has what must be the last soot-blackened facades in London. Most of the interiors of these buildings are wildly overcrowded. Bloomsbury indoors is an academic Kowloon.

The drastic measures needed to rescue this area rest on the fate of the University of London. The only sensible solution is for UCL to assume control of the entire Bloomsbury campus. To have warring boards and principals competing for money for courses, buildings and research grants within a single square mile is absurd. At present the university runs a student union a hundred yards from the UCL one. The enclave cries out for unified academic leadership. …

Nothing in London is as crazy as its universities. There are 41 institutions of higher education in the capital, with a quarter of a million students. Only half are within the University of London. Higher education is among London's biggest service industries. Public money splurges round it, with little attempt to coordinate even costly medical and engineering research. College mergers, as mooted between UCL and Imperial, almost always collapse.

We might assume that something called the University of London might get a grip on this duplication, merging and rationalising here and there. Last February the [Provost and President] of UCL, [Professor] Malcolm Grant, remarked that the university "lacks the capacity and legitimacy to play the leadership role that its name suggests". He proposed that it be quietly dismantled. He may have a vested interest in the matter but he is surely right.

If I were UCL I would stage a flat-out takeover bid for the University of London's £85m of property assets. I would review every activity on the Bloomsbury campus and plan Europe's premier academic township. Down would come the Senate House and the Institute of Education. Montague Place, Malet Street and Woburn Square would be redesigned as quadrangles, streets and piazzas. Hidden churches, museums, gardens and townhouses would be brought to light. I would find somewhere to recreate a Brick Lane.

I would hive off some academic departments, such as business and law, into privately financed subsidiaries, independent and thus free to charge uncapped fees to students. I would break away from the strangulation of government and give London a touch of Harvard, with a touch of Harvard Yard.

I am sure the musty denizens of Senate House will resist. The colleges will be galvanised to stop UCL in its tracks. For dyed-in-the-wool, do-nothing, leave-it-to-tomorrow conservatism there is nothing to beat a British university in thrall to government subsidy. Yet how sad that when the West End is revived, Holborn booming and St Pancras emerging as a European hub, London's academic quarter should be so steeped in public squalor.

Simon Jenkins, 'The Guardian', 2 December 2005