This year's Christmas present for the higher education system is a new university. Not one of the nine former colleges that have been promoted, but the extension and recasting of an existing university that has taken more than its fair share of flak. You would not have guessed it from the press release, or the statement on its own website, but Luton University may be no more by the start of the next academic year. If the object of calling a press conference at four hours' notice deep in rural Bedfordshire was to ensure this aspect of the county's new venture passed unnoticed, it almost succeeded.
But however low-key the launch of the prospective University for Bedfordshire, it raises interesting questions about the impact of the new higher education market. Is this, for instance, the start of the rationalisation that was so widely predicted when the Government's blueprint for higher education was published almost three years ago? The Bedfordshire plan makes sense in its own terms - the county is booming and expects to benefit further in the run-up to the Olympic Games in 2012. De Montfort University has been gradually retreating to its Leicester base, quitting first Lincolnshire and then Milton Keynes before deciding to sell its campuses in Bedford. And Luton would shed a name that - however unfairly - has become a millstone, allowing it to focus on a more marketable identity. Luton no doubt hopes that the image of Bedfordshire will do for the university what Lincoln has done for the former Humberside University. But the planners will be well aware that Lincoln also provided a new and attractive campus, a well-judged academic plan and appointments to match. However Bedfordshire's estates strategy develops, Luton will remain its major site for the foreseeable future.
This may not be the first in a wave of mergers, but it is a sign of the intense jockeying for position that is taking place in universities all over England. The application figures we reported last week may have looked reassuring, but many of the new universities' places are filled late in the cycle. The Bedfordshire initiative is not only a sensible precaution but a development with real potential that deserves a fair wind.