Forced marriage

A state-imposed merger of three Welsh institutions threatens self-government in the sector, Barbara Wilding warns

November 8, 2012

There are few things that UK higher education should value more highly than the tradition of institutional autonomy. But Cardiff Metropolitan University, the institution I have the privilege to chair, is being threatened with forced dissolution, a move that would see its assets transferred to another university.

Political interference of this level is anathema to UK higher education. Everyone in the sector should be alarmed: the self-government of universities is under threat.

Last year, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales recommended to the Welsh government that a number of universities should merge, resulting in one "new" institution and one research-led university in each of three planning regions.

In South East Wales, where some 60 per cent of the Welsh population reside, the merger of Cardiff Met, the University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport has been mooted. Leighton Andrews, the Welsh education minister, has stated that this is his preferred outcome.

Estimates put the size of the merged institution at more than 45,000 students. Spread across eight disparate sites, it would form the largest campus-based institution in the UK.

An alternative scenario, also the subject of statutory consultation, is for Glamorgan and Newport to merge and work with Cardiff Met in a strategic alliance.

Negotiations are ongoing for Newport's dissolution, with its assets and liabilities to be transferred to Glamorgan: this could occur by April next year.

Cardiff Met, however, is a sustainable and viable institution. Its governing body remains to be convinced of the merits of a three-way merger. For the past year, its members have repeatedly asked the Welsh government for the business case: how much would it cost? Where would the money come from? What are the risks? Who are the beneficiaries? A decision on dissolution cannot be made without evidence, assessment of benefit and risk, and consideration of all the options.

Although some would have it otherwise, the governing body has primary responsibility for the university, not least for the well-being of its staff and students. If it did not ask these questions it would be failing in its statutory and fiduciary duties.

We understand the Welsh government's ambitions for a reconfigured sector and are open to evidence-based and reasoned proposals. It has long been understood, however, that statutory powers of dissolution should be used only in cases of voluntary merger or failing institutions, not against one that is successful and financially sound.

A document published as part of the consultation refers to "rationalising and renewing" the estates of the three institutions, "visible minimisation of back office costs" and "reduction in management costs". This raises many questions: how many jobs will be lost? How many campuses will be closed? Why is there such a fixation on a "bigger is better" mentality when there is no evidence to support such a strategy in the sector?

Beyond the financial risks, there is the issue of safeguarding participation and widening access. All our Cardiff-based students are taught within a four-mile radius of the city centre across three campuses. Compare that with a "super" (rather, disproportionate) university across eight campuses, spreading 12 miles south to north and 14 miles east to west. Courses that were once a local bus ride away could literally be in another city.

Some accuse us of having our heads in the sand and being unreceptive to change. On the contrary, Cardiff Met has been an advocate of collaborative working for many years, and we believe that the development of strategic alliances across planning regions would be far better for students and stakeholders.

I am sure that many university employees reading this are breathing a collective sigh of relief that it is not their establishment being targeted in such a way. This is a test case of unparalleled political interference, which, if permitted to succeed, will have widespread and profound consequences for the creation and dissemination of knowledge. The educational landscape in our country would change in ways we hardly dare imagine.


After Times Higher Education went to press, the Welsh education minister announced that plans to forcibly dissolve Cardiff Metropolitan University have been dropped. Read the story here

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