Up to eight higher education institutions could be forced to close under plans put to the Welsh Assembly by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. The plans could ignite debate over institutional autonomy throughout the United Kingdom.
HEFCW has put forward plans to merge Wales's 13 higher education institutions into a core of "five or six general multi-mission institutions", centred on Wales's only two validating universities. It is unclear whether all campuses would remain but the funding council concludes that "the status quo is not an option", as Welsh institutions are too small to compete internationally.
A "survival of the fittest" race is inevitable. The report acknowledges that fundamental questions of institutional autonomy must be addressed as the national assembly considers how to take the proposals forward.
The report says: "Some academics will question the idea of a merger agenda. Heads of institutions and governing bodies are likely to be even more questioning. The preservation of institutional autonomy (is a) significant and natural instinct ... this raises major issues as to the extent to which pressure should be brought to bear on institutions to integrate and merge, of how prescriptive this should be."
A turf war between the fledgling parliament and universities will not be fought until autumn 2000 as the assembly has decided to deal with the 16 to 19-year-olds' agenda first. But some protagonists are already squaring up.
The Heads of Higher Education, Wales, in a joint statement with the UK-wide Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, has already warned it will resist the plans, and will propose an alternative course of action when the assembly debates higher education's future next year.
John O. Williams, principal of the North East Wales Institute in Wrexham and chair of HHEW, said the heads were disappointed not to have been consulted.
Len Arthur, the Welsh executive member of lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "We want any moves to come from the bottom up, but the assembly has the legal powers, through funding, to use force. No one wants a Stalinist jack-boot approach, but we are worried about academic freedom and institutional autonomy. We must avoid a slippery road to state control."
The union hopes that the plans will be embraced, and led, by the sector itself, which realises radical measures are the key to international competitiveness.
"We are not negative. What we want is an open debate, quickly, and some guarantees that there will be no top-down force, no compulsory redundancies and increased funding for students."
The most vulnerable institutions include the North East Wales Institute in Wrexham, University of Wales College, Lampeter, and University College Newport, all of which receive less than Pounds 14 million from the funding council. The University of Wales College of Medicine could be subsumed within Cardiff University.
The University of Glamorgan is set to survive purely because it is the only Welsh higher education institution to award degrees outside the Federal University of Wales. But some institutions in the federal structure have already expressed concerns about being forced to deliver Glamorgan degrees.