Visionary initiative comes under threat of closure in wake of funding debacle

February 15, 2007

Seven years ago, a visionary campus opened in the heart of one of the UK's most sparsely populated and deprived areas.

The Crichton University Campus in Dumfries, housed in a former psychiatric hospital amid 34 hectares of parkland, has been hailed as a catalyst for regenerating the deprived southwest of Scotland, helping to stanch the exodus of young people and creating opportunities for mature students.

But now the project, which brings together Glasgow and Paisley universities and Bell College is seriously threatened.

Glasgow University, the major partner in the campus, is planning to axe its undergraduate intake and withdraw from the site, with the university and the Scottish Funding Council blaming each other for the disastrous move.

When Crichton was established, it was given 150 student places, with 90 reserved for Glasgow. But Glasgow, which now has 250 Crichton students, said it expected more places as Crichton expanded. It claimed that its Crichton operations had an annual deficit of £800,000, which it could no longer sustain.

But the SFC argued that Glasgow could fund the extra places from its existing resources if it so chose, and it maintains it was proving its commitment to the campus with a £28 million investment.

Both Paisley and Bell, which hope to merge in August, said they intended to develop and strengthen their presence in Dumfries. Paisley specialises in business and health studies, while Bell teaches nursing and midwifery. A spokesperson for Paisley, which also has 250 students on the site, said it had no annual deficit at Crichton.

But while the campus will not disappear, Glasgow's withdrawal would be a massive blow. The campus set up an innovative range of interdisciplinary liberal arts courses, with specialisms including health and social studies, modern languages and philosophy. It also responded to local needs by offering honours degrees in environmental sustainability and social work.

Its research is also firmly rooted in the region: it has a research centre in health and social issues and another in tourism and heritage. It has capitalised on local associations with Robert Burns and ran a highly successful international conference on the cult film The Wicker Man, filmed in the region. But last week Glasgow sent letters to next year's applicants, saying its continuing presence at Crichton was now unlikely, since the SFC had not come up with more cash.

The campus trade unions have been lobbying for another student intake this autumn. But in a letter to staff, Glasgow's principal, Sir Muir Russell, said the university court had consistently taken the view that there could be no more students without extra money.

The court was this week expected to agree a staged withdrawal from Crichton. But staff and students were planning to picket the meeting, calling for a moratorium on any decision.

Elaine Murray, the local Labour MSP, will be raising the issue in the Scottish Parliament. She won cross-party support for a motion calling on the SFC to help Glasgow maintain its presence at Crichton and to defer decisions until after this year's spending review.

David Bleiman, assistant general secretary of the University and College Union Scotland, called on First Minister Jack McConnell to intervene and to give Crichton the support given to the north of Scotland through the UHI Millennium Institute.

"Just as it took a political initiative to develop higher education in the Highlands and Islands, there is clearly scope for ministers to intervene to knock heads together and provide the necessary financial support and guidance so the wider economic and social needs of the region can be properly supported by higher education provision," Mr Bleiman said.

Alastair Hunter, UCU Scotland president, who is also a staff representative on Glasgow's court, said the court had to allow enough time for those concerned with the region's best interests to campaign for the necessary extra funding. "To stop admitting students now would be to throw in the towel before the end of round one," he said.

Universally applauded, but under threat of closure

"It's stomach churning, because no one knows what's happening,"

Angela McClanahan, who has taught at Crichton for the past four years, said. "There's no solid information, just speculation."

Half an hour later, she and her colleagues received a message from Glasgow University's principal, Sir Muir Russell, effectively signalling Glasgow's withdrawal from the Crichton site.

"I don't know if this is being done to make staff feel they should give up," she said. "But there is such a feeling behind Crichton, I don't see why we shouldn't keep fighting. What if the Scottish Executive came and said: 'We'll give you the money'?"

Dr McClanahan began teaching at Crichton while completing her PhD in archaeology and anthropology at Manchester University. Her first degree is from a liberal arts institution in the US, and she believes students both enjoy and benefit from an interdisciplinary approach. "It's great to see students making connections between what they learn in philosophy and what they might get in a practical course with me in museum management. It also encourages collegiate relationships between staff. Political philosophers, for example, have opened my mind and made me go back and read texts I know well in a different way."

She feared Glasgow might be focusing too narrowly on research excellence.

"They have a responsibility to widening participation," she said. And she stressed that Crichton produces work that could be submitted to the research assessment exercise. She is applying for postdoctoral and research fellowships to build her research profile.

She was bewildered that a venture that was universally applauded may be wound down. "Everybody's making someone else responsible. The Scottish Funding Council blames Glasgow, which blames the SFC. Crichton was never properly funded, never had the proper infrastructure."

But she believed Glasgow would be diminished by its withdrawal. "This could add to its growing success in the world rankings. When people come up to you, saying: 'This place really changed my life,' you realise what is at stake here."

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