Predicting the demise of the University of London has been a fashionable past-time over the last few years, starting with talk of the Imperial/UCL merger and continuing as the UL colleges applied for degree-awarding powers.
As Imperial prepares to formally withdraw, exercising its own degree-awarding powers in the process, more doubt has surrounded the competence of the university in itself and its viability and desirability in the future. Colleges have long complained about the federal university's bureaucracy, particularly those more under its direct influence.
UL is now entering what may be its last chance for survival. A consultation process, started in 2005, has begun circulating new proposals which reduce the size of various committees and decimate the bureaucracy. From 2008, more power will be handed to the colleges, giving a true federal structure rather than one of part dominance, particularly over finances.
Changes in UL come as the University of London Union has been critical of the institution whose students it represents, due to ULs aggressive attempts to make it a department. Having spent tens of millions of pounds on rewiring Senate House, there are suggestions that the university would like to make a quick buck by selling or leasing ULU's buildings and operations. After much legal advice has been thrown around, UL has grudgingly accepted that a students' union cannot become a department, but the relationship with ULU is badly damaged.
ULU, like UL, is also seen as a dinosaur in need of reform. Its structures are seen as impenetrable to many and this year's ULU President Vicki Slater has started the process of reform, whilst fighting off the university at the same time. Next year's ULU President Jennifer Huseman was elected in part because of her reformist view, so the reformation of the dinosaur looks set to continue.
If it can reform, threats to ULU still remain. Rumours suggest that UL has been actively encouraging colleges to withdraw their support for it, in an attempt to undermine and close down an organisation which has assets ripe for stripping. Huseman is a fan of "direct action" (protests, occupations etc), so UL could yet find protestors at its doors demanding a better attitude.
Yet concerns have been raised that Huseman could be the death of ULU, with her promises to "work comprehensively with the anti-war movement". As ethical as an anti-war movement may seem, a perception by the UL colleges that their money is being squandered on activities not directly affecting students could undermine the union at the very time when it needs to show itself delivering real changes for real students, whilst providing value for money. Without the support of the London colleges, ULU faces as an uncertain future.
Huseman describes herself as a "disabled, mature, international student of mixed ethnic & cultural background" - almost every minority interest group going. This may all be so, however what seems like political box-ticking will make little difference to the very real threats ULU will need to meet head on, when faced with an institution which seems increasingly keen to take it out. Her experience includes a great deal of activism, in the areas of student rights, the environment and (helpfully for reform) governance. Fighting off a marauding beast determined to gut you for your disastrous financial situation is a different proposition altogether.
Both the University of London and its union are undergoing reforms, with the aim of cutting through the bureaucracy and streamlining the organisations. An increasingly aggressive university seems keen on ridding itself of ULU one way or another, while at the same time taking heat from those who believe the university itself has outlived its usefulness.
UL(U) is a sorry state indeed, with the balance of power in Bloomsbury looking to radically alter over the next 5 to 10 years.