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Is a merger the only way to save Lampeter?

Strapped for cash and the subject of a highly critical review, Lampeter is in crisis

When the academic novel A Campus Conspiracy was published a couple of years ago, it was rumoured to be a satire on the University of Wales Lampeter, one of the oldest and smallest universities in England and Wales. In it, vice- chancellors and registrars are lampooned for their pettiness and nastiness and their obsession with drumming up money from rich businessmen to the detriment of academic standards and research excellence.

There is no evidence to suggest that Lampeter is anything like the fictional St Sebastian’s University, but it has met a much more unpleasant fate. Later this year, it is expected to be merged with a Welsh college 25 miles away if talks to combine it with Trinity College Carmarthen go ahead.

Established in 1822 by the Bishop of St David’s so that Welsh scholars didn’t have to travel to Oxford, the University of Wales Lampeter has traditionally been a bastion of Englishness in Wales, complete with cloisters, chapel, old hall and quadrangle. But in recent years, it has suffered from declining student numbers and a budget crisis.

With around 1,000 undergraduates but a reasonable research reputation, especially in archaeology, it is situated in a little market town deep in south-west Wales that is so remote it doesn’t have a train station.

The trigger for the merger talks was a critical review from the Quality Assurance Agency for Wales that gave the university a verdict of “limited confidence”. So worried was the Welsh Higher Education Funding Council that it commissioned a report from external consultants that uncovered “very real problems of leadership and management”. The institution was bedevilled with staff disputes and “disconnections” between the senior management team and academic staff and lay members of council, the report said.

The vice-chancellor, Professor Robert Pearce, resigned and an acting vice- chancellor is now in place, Professor Alf Morris, previously the boss of the University of the West of England. But under the merger plan, which is currently the subject of negotiation, the leader of the newly merged institution will be Dr Medwin Hughes, who runs Trinity College Carmarthen.

Almost everyone is backing the merger: the politicians in Wales, the academics and the other Welsh universities. And it helps that the merger pill is made more palatable by the release of money from a special restructuring fund. “Swansea Metropolitan University strongly supports the merger and, when it has taken place, will do everything it can to ensure the new university is a success,” says Professor David Warner, its vice-chancellor.

According to the Rev Bill Fillery, of the Lampeter alumni society, there were some initial reservations when the merger plan was first revealed. “Now we’re happy to support the decision of council,” he says.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok, professor of Jewish theology at Lampeter, rumoured to be the anonymous author of A Campus Conspiracy, is also backing it. “The merger is the only solution,” he says. “We need Trinity, and it needs us. It needs our research and we need to be bigger and more Welsh, integrating better with the Welsh establishment.”

The politicians will be pleased that they are finally achieving an institutional merger in the principality. As long as seven years ago, the Welsh Assembly in its Reaching Higher document said that Wales had too many small institutions with too few students. With a |population of three million, it has 13 institutions, compared with 14 in Scotland, where the population is five million, and two institutions in Northern Ireland, where the population is 1.5 million. That leads to higher administrative costs for Welsh universities.

Dr Hughes, who is expected to run the new institution, was keen to accentuate the positive. Lampeter and Trinity were a good fit, he said, because they are both founded by the same Bishop of St David’s in the 19th century and both have Anglican traditions. Lampeter has an emphasis on humanities and research; Trinity on Welsh, creative arts and education. Combining the two would bring the student population up to 3,000-3,500 students, thus making a more viable university.

No name has yet been decided for the merged institution, but one possibility is Trinity St David’s. “Any name needs to have regard to the traditions of the two institutions, who we are, and to celebrate both,” says Hughes.

But there are rumblings of concern. Academics are worried about redundancies and their job descriptions. At Lampeter, they are concerned that their research will be threatened and that they will be made to teach more classes because Trinity is more of a teaching institution. And there is concern that the management has not included academics on the committee charged with creating the merged institution. But Hughes says that everyone will be consulted in the run-up to merger.

He is keen to make the merger process as open and collegiate as possible, a far cry from the goings on in the fictional St Sebastian’s University in A Campus Conspiracy.