Concern over plan for speedy merger

August 1, 2003

The proposed merger between Thames Valley University and Reading College could be completed in just three months, officials said this week.

But lecturers' union leaders have described such a tight timescale as "a recipe for a shambles" and "potentially disastrous". And they have threatened to take industrial action unless staff contracts are harmonised without downgrading the conditions of current TVU lecturers.

Berkshire Learning and Skills Council announced that the merger bid had been given the go-ahead last week.

The LSC said the target date for completion was January next year. But this week Andrew Ward, TVU's director of corporate affairs, told The THES it could be signed and sealed by October if education secretary Charles Clarke was quick to approve it.

"Depending on his diary, we could be looking at October," he said.

Jenny Golden, Natfhe's regional official for universities in London and the Southeast, said this was too quick for important issues such as staff contracts to be resolved. "We are still in the process of setting up working parties to address these issues. They are not going to meet over the summer period, so October would be far too soon," she said.

Ms Golden said that Natfhe was determined to protect the conditions of employment for TVU staff while pressing for better contracts for those at Reading.

She said: "We are not going to tolerate academic staff being forced to teach up to 900 hours a year, which is possible under the contracts Reading staff are on. We want the Reading staff on TVU contracts, and we will be into industrial action if we don't get it."

Under the merger agreement, Reading College and School of Art and Design would be dissolved and its rights, property and liabilities transferred to TVU. Although TVU would become the "umbrella brand" for the merged institution, the Reading campus would continue to be known as Reading College.

Mr Ward denied Natfhe's claim that this amounted to a takeover rather than a merger.

The merger has been billed as unique in creating a regional vocational university providing cradle-to-grave learning. It would be a mixed-economy university with 13,081 full-time-equivalent higher education students and 6,483 in further education.

In annual budget terms, the merger would move TVU from 86th to 56th out of 164 universities. Its aim would be to increase its further education numbers by 52 per cent and higher education numbers by 34 per cent over five years.

Lee Nicholls, deputy principal of Reading College, said it was too early to tell what would happen about staff contracts. But he added: "I don't think FE staff realistically imagine they are going to transfer over to an HE contract."

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