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Shadow of doubt for Glyndwr as university merger plan rumbles on

Glyndwr University

A shake-up of Wales’ universities is almost complete. But, explains Education Correspondent Gareth Evans, there remains one piece of the jigsaw left to place

For teachers, lecturers and support staff, summer is a time to relax, unwind and reflect on another frantic year in education.

But for one Welsh institution, the holiday period will be slightly more uncomfortable. Through no fault of its own, the future of Glyndwr University remains uncertain.

The fledgling institution, which only gained university status in 2008, has been in limbo since a radical overhaul of the sector was put forward two years ago by the higher education funding council (Hefcw).

In its 2011 report on the changing shape of Welsh universities, Hefcw suggested Glyndwr work with colleges under an umbrella led by Aberystwyth and Bangor.

Alternatively, Hefcw said Glyndwr could consider merging with Chester University, which is “geographically close and complementary in provision”.

Responding to a Welsh Government consultation on the paper, a group of Labour MPs and AMs said the plans displayed a “woeful ignorance” of the needs of North-East Wales.

Ian Lucas, MP for Wrexham, was adamant the university should retain its status and its aims “should not be compromised by the agendas of other institutions”.

The university’s unwavering support from local members appeared a determining factor in then Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ decision to rebuff Hefcw’s advances and examine further the options available in one of Wales’ most  industrial regions.

Former Glamorgan vice-chancellor Sir Adrian Webb was appointed to lead an experienced review team, which included former Alyn and Deeside MP Lord Barry Jones and Airbus UK’s Gary Griffiths.

The panel was given until April this year to submit its findings, which guaranteed Hefcw’s original deadline for collaboration – to have no more than six institutions in Wales by March 2013 – would not be met.

But the report was delayed and it was not until earlier this month that the nation’s new Education Minister, Huw Lewis, announced he had received Sir Adrian’s submission.

After an arduous battle to merge institutions in the south-east, Glyndwr remains the only part of the funding council’s jigsaw left to piece together.

But we are still some way off a resolution and Mr Lewis’ pledge – to consider its findings and “make a further statement before the end of the year” – will have been a frustration to stakeholders.

The shadow of doubt can be a nagging thorn for any institution and while the Welsh Government has not been explicit in its plans for Glyndwr, the university is already feeling the effects.

In an interview with the Western Mail, vice-chancellor Professor Michael Scott last year said the uncertainty surrounding his university’s future had left him vulnerable to staff “poaching” from rival institutions.

Prof Scott said the wealth of talent on offer at Glyndwr had not gone unnoticed and there was a lot of interest from “big  universities” across the border.

Suffice to say, he would have wanted a far quicker conclusion to what is becoming a long, drawn out affair. Two years after Hefcw’s announcement, we are still no clearer to knowing what the future holds for Glyndwr.

Mr Andrews was at pains to stress that, after the allocated three years, the Welsh Government’s reconfiguration agenda had now run its course and an updated higher education policy would run until 2020.

Collaboration is conspicuous by its absence and the pressing need for controversial structural change has long since diminished. Yet the wait goes on and staff at Glyndwr remain in limbo.

A surprise change in minister ensured a decision on North-East Wales would be deferred until after the summer recess. What Mr Lewis does on his return to Ty Hywel could have far-reaching implications.

Will he let sleeping dogs lie or will he choose to make a statement, much like his predecessor did with under-fire Cardiff Met? The latter is certain to be met by stiff opposition, not least from within his own party.

The time has come to move on. Focus need not be on structure, but quality of provision and what it is universities in Wales can offer its people, economy and the wider world.

Glyndwr is an important player in an area which ranks among the nation’s most deprived. A so-called “modern university”, it is tailored to the needs of local business and is the ideal foil for neighbouring colleges.

Above all, Glyndwr has worked hard to ensure higher education is rooted firmly in the communities it serves. Latest figures show a quarter (25.3%) of Glyndwr’s young first-degree students are from low participation neighbourhoods – by far the highest rate in Wales.

The university plays an important role in and around Wrexham, but its reach extends further into Russia, Vietnam, India and Eastern Europe.

Prof Scott, whose stock in the community rose after a successful bid for the town’s Racecourse Stadium, has scoured the world for inward investment and he can’t be accused of resting on his laurels.

Glyndwr’s link to further education seems the most likely outpost and a strengthening of existing ties is perhaps the best way forward. But whatever Mr Lewis decides, Glyndwr deserves an answer – and fast. (Wales Online)

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