The news that University College London (UCL) and Imperial College, two of Britain's most respected universities, are negotiating a possible merger has two possible interpretations. It's either an opportunity to create a so-called "super-university" that would eclipse the likes of Oxford and Cambridge in terms of research income, or it's a last-ditch bid to save both institutions from decline brought about by under-funding.

According to Sir Derek Roberts, the provost of UCL, it's the former. Earlier this week, The Independent newspaper quoted him as saying: "This is about creating the world's number one university. This would put Oxford and Cambridge way, way behind and put us in a strong position to rival Harvard."

But it also emerged that the idea has been given added impetus by mounting concerns over the long-term effects of inadequate research funding. In a letter to his staff, Imperial College rector Sir Richard Sykes...

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