It is a "tragedy" that Welsh higher education is missing out on millions of pounds of extra funding because the sector is failing to meet merger targets set by the principality's assembly, according to the universities' funding chief.
Roger Williams, chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, said the Welsh Assembly had made it clear that any funding above the level of inflation would be provided only on the basis of "something for something" -Jthat is, a demonstration of clear progress being made on reconfiguration and merger targets set out two years ago in the assembly's Reaching Higher agenda.
So serious are the concerns that Welsh funding council officials hope to persuade assembly ministers to accept a new definition of their target for substantial "reconfiguration" of the sector, which has notched up only one institutional merger out of a possible three since the assembly published its radical agenda.
Merger plans between the University of Wales Institute Cardiff and the University of Glamorgan have collapsed, and merger talks between Bangor University and the North East Wales Institute have stalled.
Speaking at the Welsh funding council's annual public meeting in Cardiff last Thursday, Professor Williams said: "The fact that a significant sum of money was lost by these mergers not happening is both significant and sad. In fact, it is a tragedy."
The funding council had expected that the successful merger between Cardiff University and the University of Wales College of Medicine, which resulted in a £15 million assembly grant over three years, would add impetus to the other plans.
The Cardiff merger led directly to investment of a further £8 million from the Department of Trade and Industry for a new Brain and Repair Imaging Centre.
Welsh funding council officials have acknowledged complaints from universities such as Aberystwyth that their geographical position leaves them with little chance to bring about a merger. They are now preparing a case to present to the assembly for other kinds of collaboration in research and teaching to qualify for "reconfiguration" money.
This is likely to include moves to establish bigger centres of research excellence that would stand more chance of competing for some of the UK's larger research council grants. Currently, Wales attracts about 3.5 per cent of research council grants, although on a proportional basis it should be winning at least 5 per cent.
Phil Gummett, the Welsh funding council's interim chief executive, said:
"We think we can come forward with some serious proposals to put together research expertise from several institutions. But these would have to be not just cosmetic alliances but serious propositions where the nature of the relationship between institutions has been transformed."
He added: "In the long run, I would like to get this funding into the baseline of our budget. But to do that, the assembly has to have confidence that the sector has substantially transformed itself."
What has happened : Merger, agreed in March 2003, to be completed in August
Plan : Merge University of Wales Institute Cardiff and University of Glamorgan to form Wales' largest university
What has happened : Talks collapsed shortly before Christmas 2003 after UWIC governors rejected the plans
Plan : Merge Bangor University and North East Wales Institute of Higher Education
What has happened : Talks on hold as the two institutions try to sort out "a difference of perspective on key issues". Unlikely to be resumed before Bangor's new vice-chancellor joins in October.