V-c's vision for viability entails loss of campuses

May 25, 2001

As two universities prepare to downsize, THES reporters examine the rationale

De Montfort University vice-chancellor Philip Tasker's travelling days will soon be over. Since his appointment two years ago, he has held regular meetings with staff at all the university's ten campuses.

His vision for the university will mean that by 2004 De Montfort's geographical spread will have shrunk to just two locations: Leicester and Bedford.

The university's plan to withdraw from its Milton Keynes and Lincolnshire sites has drawn surprisingly little fire from academics and students.

However, staff at the sites being scrapped or sold to the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside are worried that they might lose their jobs, while students at Milton Keynes are miffed that promises of campus development have dropped off the agenda.

Ralph Birkenhead, chair of lecturers union Natfhe's coordinating committee at De Montfort, said about 60 jobs, mostly support staff, were under threat. He added: "We are concerned about staff who may not be able to move, but the process of managing at a distance has turned out to be more difficult and cumbersome than the original management team envisaged."

Lee Thomas, De Montfort student union president, said: "On the whole, we approve. It is hard for students at Milton Keynes and in Lincolnshire to feel part of the university."

The reorganisation has been presented as a move from a position of relative strength to one that should maintain the university's long-term viability. Professor Tasker was adamant that the university expected to stay in the black for the next few years. He was equally insistent that it was not considering a merger, despite rumours to the contrary.

He added: "If you have a system where a lot of your income comes from teaching and the grant for that is rising by 2 per cent while staffing costs are going up by 5 per cent, then you have to do something just to stand still.

"The restructuring gives me capital to greatly enhance our facilities. We do not have a revenue problem, but our income is too tight to build up any surplus."

Fee-paying students expect "the full range of campus facilities", so such investment is a necessity rather than a luxury.

De Montfort's strategic plan, which took a year to complete, involved a "robust analysis" of its position as a distributed institution. It found that the model was unsustainable in today's environment. "Students are demanding a really good environment, and I cannot offer that on ten campuses," Professor Tasker said.

The physical consolidation will involve De Montfort joining other familiar trends: shifting provision to concentrate on its strengths (its vocational programmes in computing, business, art and design, and pharmacy) and "maximum utilisation of space".

Reorganisation will not mean a drop in student numbers, so the Leicester sites will have to find space for 2,000 more. The university's network of further education partner colleges will become more important to help maintain widening participation, while closer work with other universities is more likely.

Professor Tasker added: "I would not want us to lose our reputation for being innovative, dynamic and challenging. People will still find us a demanding institution, but that is all to the good."

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