V-c signals thumbs up as merger is mooted for troubled institution

But UWL's Morris says proposal must deliver added value - not just savings. Melanie Newman reports

December 4, 2008

A merger between the University of Wales Lampeter (UWL) and Trinity College Carmarthen is looking increasingly likely after Lampeter's acting vice-chancellor Alfred Morris hinted he was "predisposed" to back the idea.

Professor Morris told Times Higher Education: "The key question is: what is the value added? Is there synergy? I wouldn't advocate our combining if the only issue were to do with savings and economies. The debate is whether there is a vision for a new university, which would build on the strengths and traditions of both institutions. I'm predisposed to think that this is the case."

But Professor Morris added that rumours that the decision was "a done deal" were "entirely premature", insisting that partnership and collaboration options that stop short of full merger were still up for consideration.

Professor Morris was brought into Lampeter as its interim head after a report commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales identified "very real problems of leadership and management" there. Times Higher Education reported in July that a draft of the report by consultants HWCA said: "There is no coherent, well-expressed, widely accepted strategy, either agreed or being pursued within the institution ... there is no clear vision of what UWL should work to become which is shared by the senior management team, council and academics."

The draft report highlighted a need for "strong leadership to connect the various factions and interests and align them behind a common purpose", but said "there has been a failure of leadership to bring and correct disconnections between the senior management team and both academic staff and lay members of council".

Vice-chancellor Robert Pearce retired in September after a period of sick leave.

A report on options for the future from a meeting of Trinity and Lampeter's governors is due on 11 December, after which the councils of each institution will decide how to proceed.

"There is a lot more discussion to be had and there's no imperative for it to happen, but I would prefer to bring this to a fairly quick conclusion as uncertainty is not good for morale," Professor Morris said.

Trinity, an Anglican college that maintains a strong tradition of teacher training, is seeking a university college title. Lampeter is financially sound and has a strong research profile in some disciplines. Both institutions are comparatively small.

Local reaction to a merger has been mixed. A letter to the Cambrian News in November says the new institution will be "second rate", replacing "two perfectly good ones", and that "to marry two institutions as different as Lampeter and Trinity surely risks doing damage to both". Another complains that Lampeter's "unique identity would be lost", while a third enthuses that "once absorbed by Trinity ... Lampeter will cease its posturing as a little Oxford in the heart of Wales ... (and) start to offer the kind of vocationally orientated degrees that people ... want".

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

JOINING FORCES AND MARKET REPOSITIONING

City University and Brunel University are exploring the possibility of joining the University of London.

City has confirmed that it has been engaged in informal discussions about becoming a member of the federation, while Brunel said it would be considering the option in future.

The last college to become part of the University of London was the Central School of Speech and Drama, which joined in 2005, and Imperial College London broke away from the federation in July last year.

This August, the University of London adopted new governance arrangements designed to give it a more streamlined and "corporate" structure.

The sizeable senate and council system has been replaced with a smaller board of trustees and a collegiate council.

A spokeswoman for City said the University of London would not be looking for any new members until the new governance arrangements were fully embedded.

"Once this has been completed, City University London will review whether there is an opportunity to make a case for entry in 2009," she said.

A spokesman for the University of London said that any institution applying to become a member would need to demonstrate that it operated "in a complementary way with the existing collegiate structure", and had "a track record of excellence" in teaching and research and could "add value" to the collective interests of the colleges.

College heads said the University of London's worldwide reputation meant that becoming part of the federation could raise an institution's profile and ability to recruit students. One said: "If you see yourself as a research-strong university in London, then becoming part of the University of London would underline that and associate you with the rest of research-strong London."

Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh has been considering merging with Napier University in a bid to tackle its £20 million debt, it has emerged. Documents obtained by the Sunday Herald newspaper showed that the Scottish Funding Council met with QMU's finance director on 22 October to discuss options for the university's future, including merger with Napier and forming an east-coast federation with The Robert Gordon University and the University of Abertay Dundee. QMU principal Anthony Cohen is quoted by the paper saying that the institution's preferred choice is to remain independent, but collaborate with other institutions. QMU is in "very intense" talks with at least four post-1992 institutions to pool resources and create a postgraduate school that can compete with the ancient universities.

Meanwhile, Thames Valley University (TVU) is making staff redundant as it repositions itself as a more employer-focused institution.

A spokesperson said: "A refocusing of the university means we are in consultations with trade union representatives about targeted redundancies. We initially anticipated that this would be around the 100 figure, but we are working with the unions to mitigate this."

Times Higher Education understands that initially redundancies of 88 academics, 22 administrative staff and six managers were envisaged.

Earlier this year, TVU announced its ambition to be the foremost employment-engagement university in the UK. Its "FutureSkills project" involved establishing three learning centres at Slough Trading Estate, Heathrow Airport and Park Royal, from which skills advisers work with employers.

The university is "repositioning itself ... in terms of workforce up-skilling, employer engagement and business interaction", the spokesperson said.

But one TVU staff member asked: "With a recession looming, is now really a good time to seek to become the training arm of businesses?"

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