Five years ago Luton University was on its knees. It was failing to recruit enough students for its courses and was forced to produce a drastic recovery plan by the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce). That meant axing the whole of its humanities faculty. At a stroke nine subjects disappeared: history, politics, English, modern languages, geography, geology, environmental studies, mathematics and technology; and in came the trendy new subjects of media studies, computing and sports science.
Academics were in revolt because of job losses, and rumours flew about a merger with the nearby University of Hertfordshire. As an institution with few cash reserves that languished towards the bottom of the league table for research, Luton was more vulnerable than most to a new funding regime that introduced a marketplace to higher education by clawing money back from universities failing to recruit to target.
Fortunately for Luton, that is all now history. This week the university is being reborn as the University of Bedfordshire through a merger that has been engineered with the Bedford campus of De Montfort University. It gives Luton the chance to reinvent itself with a new name and a new identity; in other words, to begin all over again. In the eyes of the image-makers, Luton is rebranding itself.
"We see it as a major access and opportunity university covering the whole of the county of Bedfordshire," says the vice chancellor Professor Les Ebdon, sounding like one who is paid to promote the institution. So, from 1 August, the old Luton University will not only be starting afresh but will also be getting larger.
The Bedford campus of De Montfort contains highly rated and venerable physical education and teacher training departments and is undergoing a £34m make-over at the moment. For Luton, acquiring this campus is actively burnishing its offering, and thereby its reputation.
As a university that relies heavily on the volatile overseas student market, it is useful too for it to be acquiring more home students. Professor Deian Hopkin, of London South Bank University, believes that a name change can make all the difference when it comes to attracting students.
Three years ago his university changed its name from South Bank to London South Bank University. Like Luton, his university was in the doldrums, haemorrhaging applications and penalised by Hefce. By adding "London" to its name, applications have doubled from 8,000 to almost 16,000. To people abroad it makes a huge difference," says Hopkin. "South Bank didn't mean anything but everyone knows about London. Whether you like it or not, the word 'Luton' carried connotations. I think the name change will help them. It's giving a wider context to the university."
Roger Brown, vice chancellor of Southampton Solent University, says that Luton is basically a good institution. "On many of the quality measures they come out well," he says. "This merger is a good move."
Luton was a relatively small university with only 14,000 students, which meant it was not well placed to withstand big changes to its fortunes. The Bedford campus has 3,000, so it has grown to 17,000 overnight, the size of a medium university. Situated at the southern edge of Bedfordshire, Luton served a restricted area. By gobbling up the Bedford campus, it immediately expands its catchment area to the whole county. All this has, of course, cost money.
Luton has paid De Montfort good money for its acquisition, though Ebdon will not say how much. Amazing though it may sound, Luton is now in a very healthy financial state. "Last year we made an operating surplus of £8m," says Ebdon. "This university has been transformed. We are growing and have been allowed to grow by the funding council."
In fact, Ebdon believes that new universities like Luton should be supported to a much greater extent by the Government and allowed to expand further because they are delivering on the Government's widening participation agenda. The latest performance indicators show that Luton was above its benchmark for the number of young students it takes from low-participation neighbourhoods (where there are few people going to higher education). Its intake is 18.2 per cent against a benchmark of 14.2 per cent.
Its proportion of state school students is 99.5 per cent against a benchmark of 95.6 per cent and it admits 43.4 per cent from the lowest social classes against a benchmark of 35.7 per cent. Hand in hand with financial viability, the university became much better at attracting students.
It has also become better at retaining students. It increased its home and European recruitment of students by 59.9 per cent. "We made ourselves a more welcoming and friendly university," says Ebdon. "We really transformed our open days. We became much more customer-focused."
Much of this was down to Patricia Murchie, director of communications and marketing, who did away with all the unfocused spending on advertising and concentrated on turning applications into places by giving applicants a lot of tender loving care.
The conversion rate for applications into places went from one in seven to one in five. And Luton saved money in the process. "It's about giving people what they want," says Murchie. "And giving them what they want is a lot cheaper than an advertising campaign." The university has been working much more closely with local feeder further education colleges, which makes sense as 95 per cent of students come from within a 44-mile radius of Luton.
It feels that it now knows where its students come from and how to give them what they want. But the vice chancellor is not resting on his laurels or on the unsolicited praise he received from Charles Clarke when the former Education Secretary said "Everyone knows that the teaching quality at Luton is bloody brilliant". It will be a challenge to find students this autumn with a combination of the new name, the arrival of top-up fees and with applications from mature students taking a hit. Forty-three per cent of Luton's student body are mature.
And what of the student experience? Certainly those studying in the School of Media, Art and Design benefit from stunning new facilities - television production studios, radio studios, a theatre and more - built as part of a £6.1m investment. They are probably the most up to date on any British campus. All of which enables Ebdon to say "I think we have turned quite a corner in terms of reputation in the last few years."