Four years on, TVU is charting a course for others to follow. Alison Goddard reports
It is four years since Thames Valley University was branded a failing institution, with the worst standards inspectors had ever encountered.
The Quality Assurance Agency report of November 1998 said that the university was "in a position where its academic standards and the quality of its students' experience were... under threat".
Student recruitment was 30 per cent under target and the university faced a £3.8 million funding shortfall.
More than 100 staff quit and TVU was put into special measures, with a new management team appointed to implement an 84-point recovery plan. A grant given by the Higher Education Funding Council for England was dependent on the plan being implemented.
For a crucial few months, Thames Valley was fighting to stay afloat. But now, having negotiated the troubled waters, the university has stabilised student numbers and there are no further job losses planned. Financially, the university is crawling its way back into the black.
And in making the tough decisions, TVU has blazed a trail for many other universities that are rationalising provision in the face of financial and academic pressures.
Vice-chancellor Kenneth Barker has been at the helm for the past three years, after Sir William Taylor's year as interim vice-chancellor.
He said: "At the end of the 1990s, it became obvious that the university was suffering from having unviable courses with small student numbers, and it was necessary to rationalise that profile of work.
"One aspect of the 'dodgy' quality inspection was to do with the feeling that staff and students had no natural home because the university was configured on a modular basis. It is now a faculty structure and the subject areas within the faculties are the building blocks of the university.
"We have got three pro vice-chancellor deans who would hold their own in any new university. That is pleasing. Below that level, we have been able to recruit staff of high quality into areas that are important to us.
"We have also got a much stronger and more engaged board of governors, and we work very hard at involving them."
Relations between management and the staff have improved. Under Mike Fitzgerald, the flamboyant vice-chancellor who was in charge when the damning quality inspection was made, relations between management and lecturers' union Natfhe broke down to such as extent that it merited comment in the QAA report. When Mr Fitzgerald quit, staff were reported to be "dancing in the corridors".
Natfhe representative Stuart Gooden said: "In the past four years, there has been a shift back to an academic say in the running of the university. Employment relations are improving.
"If anyone had mentioned performance management five years ago, everyone would have thrown their hands up, but we have now agreed a staff performance development policy. We have hybrid further and higher education terms and conditions that seem to be better than most. We are also starting to recruit staff."
The university realised it had to play to its strengths long before the government told all universities that they should concentrate on what they do best. It created four faculties from seven schools: health and human sciences; music, media and creative technologies; tourism, hospitality and leisure; and business, management and law.
Professor Barker said: "We are no longer significantly involved in social science; there is no sociology or humanities or languages or linguistics. There has been a growth in the area of music and media through the London College of Music. We are also strong in creative technology and computing. Tourism, hospitality and leisure is also one of our strengths."
The university plans to expand student numbers by continuing to reach out to its traditional market of people who are underrepresented in higher education. It is strengthening its relationships with neighbouring further education colleges in a bid to woo students into higher education and is in the process of merging with Reading College.
Professor Barker said: "The important thing is not to think about a university like this on traditional terms - because it really doesn't fit. We have links with further education and we are trying to build up links for the future that are going to be the defining characteristics of this university.
"As the move towards 50 per cent participation takes hold, we will find that we are moving towards a comprehensive form of education, so there is a tremendous overlap between teaching in further and higher education.
"The strategic plan looks at the next three to four years. It is a plan for growth and we are expecting that we can get into a position where we can improve the infrastructure.
"We want to develop new markets among people who go into employment - for example, local government - who are capable of higher education but don't enter it. And the natural vehicle for it would be the foundation degree."
The university is offering foundation degrees for hairdressers, beauticians and aromatherapists next year. It is developing an applied business foundation degree that would equip further education students with the skills needed to run a business. The idea is to stretch the student from further education to higher education through applied business, equipping them with the level of business skills needed to get into a managerial post.
TVU already offers foundation degrees in hospitality, music and multimedia technology and in web-based computing. It plans to offer the applied business foundation degree next year alongside a course in public administration.
Its 2000 strategic plan agreed that the university could grow back to the size it should have been in 1999. The number of Hefce-funded students is projected to rise from 11,600 full-time equivalents this year to 13,600 in 2005. Professor Barker also has plans to revive research at the university.
He said: "In the mid-1990s, the institution was explicitly a teaching-only university and it's no longer a teaching-only university. We are increasing research and it's a main professional responsibility to do scholarship and research."
It is a move that has been welcomed by his staff. Natfhe representative Mr Gooden said: "When Sir William came in as acting vice-chancellor, he decided to focus entirely on teaching and he removed research, which, with hindsight, was a mistake as it automatically pushed us to the bottom of the tables. We are now seeing an effort to build up research but it takes time and it will be a long slog."
Financially, the university is reducing its deficit by about £1 million a year and should be back in the black next year. The recovery might have happened sooner if plans to sell part of the Slough campus had not been shelved, after an over-supply of office space in the region resulted in the land value falling.
The university still has its weaknesses. Mr Gooden said: "One of our negative aspects is we have probably got the worst staff-to-student ratio. I have been through four staff redundancy programmes over the past five years. But every institution has problems and now other institutions are having the problems that we have been through."
Perhaps the most important change has been in staff morale. Mr Gooden said:
"It has been a long, hard recovery and we still have a lot of work to do. There have been quite a lot of changes, but they would have to drag me kicking and screaming from TVU. A lot of people are very loyal."
Many varied shapes form student body
Some ,000 students are enrolled at Thames Valley University, two-thirds of whom are part-time.
A third of students are in further education, a quarter are undergraduate and 15 per cent are taking postgraduate or professional qualifications. The remaining 30 per cent of students are registered with the Wolfson Institute of Health Sciences, one of the UK's largest providers of nursing and midwifery programmes.
Half of full-time students come from an ethnic minority group as do 35 per cent of part-time students. Some 80 per cent of part-time students are mature and 80 per cent of students live locally.
Vice-chancellor Kenneth Baker said: "In this part of London, we have populations that are at the extreme end of not having a family history of education. They are immigrants and asylum seekers. They are not second or third-generation immigrants but first-generation Asians, Africans and Eastern Europeans.
"Not only are they less integrated within English social structures, they are from more varied backgrounds - and that makes for a very challenging role as far as the university is concerned."
The Thames pathway to university
Thames Valley University was founded in 1860 as the Lady Byron School, which initially specialised in technical and vocational education.
In the 1950s, the portfolio of courses was extended to include hotel and catering and degree courses. The institution became a polytechnic - from the merger of Ealing College, Thames Valley College and Queen Charlotte's College of Health Care - in 1991, just in time to apply for university status.
The London College of Music joined in the same year as the polytechnic was founded.
TVU is now merging with Reading College and has close relationships with further education providers Kingston College, Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College and Uxbridge College. The university wants to develop foundation degrees with these colleges and, ultimately, would like to share infrastructure and staff.