New dawn in the West after former Thames Valley leaves the at-risk list

V-c forecasts sunshine for a leaner, more fiscally sound University of West London. Jack Grove writes

January 12, 2012

Cutting student numbers and reducing its sprawling estate have left the University of West London on a sound financial footing ahead of any possible turbulence this year, according to its vice-chancellor.

Speaking to Times Higher Education after the university was taken off the Higher Education Funding Council for England's "at risk" list in November, Peter John said that consolidating to just two campuses had been vital to securing the institution's long-term future.

West London, which changed its name from Thames Valley University last year, was put on Hefce's register of institutions considered to be "at higher risk" of financial failure in 1998 after a damning report by the Quality Assurance Agency.

But radical restructuring, which included shrinking the university's estate by nearly 50 per cent since 2007, led to an operational surplus of £6.9 million at the end of 2010-11 - about 8.4 per cent of West London's £82.5 million annual income.

Student numbers fell from 16,000 to 12,000 when provision of further education in Reading was ended.

"Lots of universities are going through this process [of consolidation]," Professor John said. "We did it three years earlier than other institutions - partly because we were forced to, but we also thought it was right thing to do."

Concentrating resources on the university's two west London campuses in Ealing and Brentford, as well as changing its name, has also improved its reputation. "It's a stronger brand now. We changed the name at the right time," he said.

Leaving the "at risk" register should also improve the image of the university. "As long as the university was seen as high risk, it would always be the focus of journalists, students and the sector," he said.

"Whenever problems arose in the sector, we were always the first institution targeted and talked about. That's why my focus has been to remove us from the list."

Accordingly, Professor John said, "I decided there had to be a major structural shift...[Fewer students] meant going against the grain because most thought bigger was better, but it made us stronger, more sustainable and higher quality."

Another goal was to escape the financial instability of the years when "we had been running structural deficits over 12 months, we had low cash levels and low liquidity".

Solid assessments from the QAA, improved scores in the National Student Survey and good job prospects for its graduates (89 per cent of whom now find a job within six months) attest to the institution's turnaround, Professor John said.

Other positive indicators include a 117 per cent increase in applications last year, with up to six applicants per place in some subjects.

With West London's average undergraduate tuition fees at £7,480, Professor John is confident that the institution can survive any drop in student numbers next year when the fee cap rises to £9,000.

"We are offering a brand promise," he said. "Students will have a work placement, in-study financial support and a strong probability of getting the job they desire - and that makes us confident."

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