Keeping a welcome in the valleys

November 1, 1996

Brian Morgan reports on the secret meeting to build a South Korean plant for making semiconductors in Newport, Wales. Welsh academic institutions have yet to see evidence of any financial benefit flowing from Pacific Rim investment. But that could change dramatically with Europe's largest inward investment project to date landing on Wales's doorstep in Newport from the South Korean company LG, formerly known as Lucky Goldstar.

The deal, masterminded by the Welsh Development Agency, will net an estimated Pounds 1.7 billion semiconductor and an electronics production plant. This will be built partly on Imperial Park, jointly owned by Cardiff University and Imperial College, London and partly on a commercial site.

A small group of academics were involved in the early and highly secret discussions. The logic was that the plant, making semiconductors and electronic circuitry using the semiconductors, needs 500 fully semiconductor familiar graduates by 1998 - no mean order for universities to turn out. It did, however, give enough time for existing electronic engineering graduates to be given a one-year semiconductor technology top-up course.

In addition, vocational and short training courses needed to be set up to cater for the local recruitment to 6,000 skilled and other jobs. Up to 20,000 jobs are likely to be created in the wider community. Only last month senior LG executives flew in, again in secret, to give Newport, Cardiff and Swansea university colleges the opportunity to show their academic wares.

One of the key academic figures in these early negotiations, and at the "beauty parade", was Paul Tasker, professor of electronic engineering at Cardiff, although few senior colleagues were aware of his involvement.

"I was one of the few people who knew exactly what was going on - this was clearly a project for which a great deal of technical support was needed - which was why, for once, academics were involved so early," he said.

His college could provide the specialist semiconductor training needed by existing graduates. LG's research and development management appreciated the college's advanced work on specialist gallium arsenide semiconductors. "We would hope that LG might start sponsoring undergraduates very early on," he said.

Other top academics from Cardiff, Swansea and Newport who took part in the unpublicised presentations in Cardiff and Newport say they needed to ensure that the Koreans were aware of what was available in industrial and undergraduate training, and of their semiconductor research strengths at Cardiff and Swansea.

The major share of the four hours of presentations in south Wales was allocated to Swansea and Cardiff with just 15 minutes to Newport. Imperial College held a separate presentation the following day in London.

The WDA has set up a planning office at Imperial Park to ensure institutions deliver the first tranche of specialist-trained graduates on time.

Newport principal Ken Overshott is confident the college could match LG's needs. As Gwent Institute of Higher Education it already had on its doorstep the formerly British, but now French owned Inmos semiconductor manufacturer, and had experience of providing short courses for them and peripheral companies.

Professor Overshott said the Koreans were more likely to make use of local training and research facilities than the notoriously insular French had been, and this could only be to the benefit of the south Wales colleges.

Swansea vice chancellor Robin Williams sounded less certain that Swansea would be closely involved in the immediate future though optimistic in the longer term. He said his aim initially was simply to get to know the South Koreans. "We have strong interests in semiconductor and computer modelling technology, with clean rooms and very strong training facilities - the further distance from Newport will be no problem for us. My guess is that things will move forward very quickly now," he said.

Ironically, Professor Williams's record in semiconductors was enhanced in recent years by his work in Cardiff, which is the college most likely to gain at a higher level in the short term, because of its status in semiconductor research and its closer proximity to the new LG plant.

No one will reveal how much of the Pounds 1.7 billion could end up in college coffers, but it need not be much of a percentage point to mean a great deal of money.

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