Imperial is criticised as Kent campus lies empty

Locals call for academic use of Wye site as private university initiative stalls. Melanie Newman writes

March 25, 2010

Plans to turn Imperial College London's Wye campus in Kent into an "elite" private university seem likely to fail after its board voted to treat the site as a non-academic asset.

There has been no academic activity at Wye, the former home of Imperial's department of agricultural sciences, since 2008, when the University of Kent pulled out of an arrangement to use it as a base for agriculture-related courses.

Since then, local residents have accused Imperial of being interested only in the campus' value as an asset, and are keen on it remaining an academic site. The university, which has invested £30 million in the site over the past decade, has strenuously denied the charge.

Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the private University of Buckingham, approached Imperial in January with plans to site a new private university at Wye.

Dr Kealey is in discussions with leading independent schools through the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference about setting up a new institution, possibly as an extension of Buckingham.

He told Times Higher Education that although Wye was a "fantastic place for it", Imperial had "taken a clear view that the campus is to be treated as a capital resource to help feed its endowments.

"I was told that all enquiries that relate to Wye should be directed to Imperial's estate agents...its plans are those of a landlord trying to extract the highest rent," he said.

The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference would want to own the freehold of any new university building, he added.

The future of the Wye campus was the subject of lengthy debate at Imperial's November 2009 board meeting. Martin Knight, Imperial's chief finance officer, said it was difficult to see why the university had agreed to a merger with Wye in 2000, when the Kent institution lost its status as a college of the University of London.

"Imperial should be much more cautious in the future about succumbing to external pressure in order to help a failing institution in severe financial difficulty," he said.

Continuing to subsidise Wye was not sustainable, he added, but local opposition to Imperial's involvement with the site meant that any action was "unlikely to be viewed positively".

Agreement was reached at the meeting on moving control of the campus to the College Fund, which manages Imperial's non-academic assets and investments.

However, no agreement was reached on whether restrictions should be attached to its marketing of the site, or whether Wye should be treated as a purely commercial asset.

An Imperial spokeswoman declined to comment on whether agreement on this issue had now been reached. She said Imperial had approached public sector institutions in the hope of finding an education provider that could make use of Wye, but without success.

"Imperial will continue to consider all possible uses for its holdings at Wye that are consistent with the college's duty as a publicly funded university to manage its resources responsibly," she added.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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