Liberation in merger

January 21, 2000

The 18th-century Palladian mansion and 260 acres of surrounding parkland and lakes would form an attractive asset to any portfolio. Add to that the internationally acclaimed Yorkshire Sculpture Park and a few thousand higher education students, and the package starts to look irresistible.

But not to the senate of Leeds University. Asked to deliberate on the pros and cons of a merger, instead of welcoming Bretton Hall into its fold, the senate asked difficult questions: What about the research assessment exercise? What about academic quality? What about the two cultures? And isn't Wakefield rather a long way down the M1?

The proposed union got a bumpy ride, particularly when you consider that Bretton Hall degrees have been validated by Leeds for 50 years. A long engagement by anyone's standards.

Bretton Hall began its transition to a college of higher education when West Riding County Council bought the house and estate from the second Viscount Allendale in 1948. The council turned it into a training college for teachers of music, art and drama. Over the next 50 years, Bretton Hall established itself in arts education and, according to principal Gordon Bell, if the college had happened to be in London, its reputation would be established worldwide. Such, he believes, is the quality of its students and staff, many of whom are practising artists.

Deliberations are, however, now concluded and the merger will go ahead in 2001, creating a new faculty of visual and performing arts for the university, with promises of big investment in both sites. Plans are being drawn up to strengthen scholarship on the Wakefield site, yet it remains to be seen how the research-focused, entrepreneurial Leeds will greet a faculty that accommodates full 17th-century court bows in its degree ceremonies.

Professor Bell insists the deal is not a rescue package for Bretton Hall, that the college would have had a future as an independent institution, but he concedes it was in danger of becoming "immersed in its own secret garden".

"We need to adapt ... to respond to the concerns of the community, particularly in those areas that are severely deprived. The arts must be accessible otherwise they are dispensable," he says.

His belief in the central role of the arts to economic and spiritual wellbeing cannot be overestimated: "In the UK, the arts account for 2.5 per cent of annual consumer spending, or Pounds 6 billion to the UK balance of payments. And there was a 34 per cent growth of the workforce employed in the cultural industries between 1981 and 1991," he says.

"But it is not just about work. Full employment for life is the central delusion of schooling and even if this is not considered a myth, the idea that work means life must surely be viewed as a myth." For a future worth having, it is vital to look beyond the culture of work to education through the arts, he believes. Widening participation and lifelong learning are key to the strategy.

"Our loss of independence is, ironically, truly liberating," Professor Bell says.

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