Higher education in Wales should be reorganised into five geographical clusters, with one of them leading the way in research and another focusing on teaching and widening access, the Welsh Assembly's higher education review has concluded.
The structure of the federal University of Wales should be reformed, with all member institutions seeking degree-awarding powers, concludes the 15-month review, published this week.
The assembly's education and lifelong learning committee, which conducted the review, recommends that some institutions within the clusters should merge, while others should enter into formal collaborative arrangements.
Funding streams should be developed to support new centres of research excellence, promote economic regeneration and technology-transfer activities, and create a pan-Wales e-learning network. Funding should be raised to ensure the Welsh unit of resource does not fall behind that of England.
The University of Wales immediately condemned the recommendations as "potentially disastrous". The Association of University Teachers in Wales warned they could have "a catastrophic financial impact on universities".
But other groups, including Higher Education Wales, representing heads of all Welsh HE institutions, gave their support.
The report says the committee "doubts that the higher education sector in Wales, in its current form, is sustainable". Low critical mass, weak collaboration, wasteful competition and duplication, and narrow provision are leading to problems with recruitment of staff and students and a weakened research base, it warns.
It adds: "If recruitment of staff and students becomes more difficult, then income will fall and market forces will begin to bite. The less popular and least cost-effective disciplines will be dropped, regardless of the skills needed in Wales, and students would be forced to leave Wales if they wished to study certain subjects."
The committee rejected proposals to unify the system by making all institutions members of the federal University of Wales, on the grounds that the UoW was "seen as bureaucratic and outmoded".
Instead, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales should be given greater planning powers to create the five clusters. One, which would act as a research base, would be made up of Cardiff University and the University of Wales College of Medicine, "which should be encouraged to merge", and the Welsh College of Music and Drama. Another, which would lead on teaching, widening access and e-learning, would involve the University of Glamorgan, the University of Wales Institute Cardiff, and the University of Wales College of Nursing. These should also consider merging in the longer term.
The other three clusters would bring together, through merger or in "contractually bound consortia", Swansea University and Swansea Institute; Aberystwyth University, Lampeter University, and Trinity College Carmarthen; and Bangor University and North East Wales Institute.
Derec Llwyd Morgan, UoW senior vice-chancellor, said he was saddened by the proposals, and warned they could hamper rather than enhance collaboration.
Letters, page 15