Thursday, 17 December 2009

College needs saviour

WHEN Cumbria University launched in 2007, the motley collection of former colleges had one jewel in the crown, the world famous former Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside.
Named after its founder, the pioneer of modern child-centred education, the college maintained its reputation with generations of teachers. It was also the only campus Cumbria had in the Lake District, with the fells and lakes featuring prominently in the promotional campaign: “Bring your dreams.
So when Cumbria University realised it had a cash crisis, with its deficit now standing at £28 million according to leaked briefing papers, and the axe was sharpened there was only one choice for the chop: Ambleside campus.
Vice Chancellor, Peter McCaffery, appointed this Spring with a brief to sort out the finances, has unsurprisingly been overwhelmed with shrieks of protest from educationalists, students and the local community, when he made the shock announcement that the campus was to be “moth-balled.”
There has been an on-line petition with 4,000 signatures, lecturers have threatened to strike, councils and MPs have launched campaigns.
Students are seeking legal advice after they were told they would have to move to other campuses, even though they only came to Cumbria University because of the Charlotte Mason connection. Nor had they budgeted to travel to Penrith, Carlisle or Lancaster (and certainly not the university’s other teacher training centre – in Tower Hamlets). Some have two-year contracts with Ambleside landlords.
When this was pointed out to Mr McCaffery at a stormy meeting he had no help or advice.
On-line petitions, protest meetings and demands from the local MP, Tim Farron, that the Government intervene had come to nought when, at a meeting at the House of Commons this week (Dec14) Mr McCaffery told Cumbria’s MPs just how deeply in the mire the university’s finances are.
Not only did the amalgamation of the former colleges fail to take advantage of any rationalisation of back office functions, it guaranteed employment to so many staff that the wages bill is out of control.
Worse, the Higher Education Funding Council for England neglected to tell the new University that the former Newton Rigg Agricultural College at Penrith needed £25 million spending on its infra-structure.
Mr Farron is calling on the HEFCE to provide stop-gap funding given that they were partly responsible for the current financial situation at the university.
He is also working with the university to launch an endowment fund for Ambleside, after he secured a six-figure donation to the campaign. But even the energetic Mr Farron accepts this appeal would fall at the first hurdle if the university were to remove undergraduate students from the campus.
Mr Farron said: “Ambleside has proven to be the most successful campus in terms of recruitment. To effectively close the campus is madness as well as a huge blow to staff, students and the whole local community.”
Vice Chancellor Professor Peter McCaffery said: “We are living in difficult times, and like many other organisations, have tough decisions to make. “
The mothballing of the Ambleside campus is expected to save the University £1.75 million pounds a year, a third of what the 600 students and 200 staff are believed to contribute to the local economy, and peanuts compared to the University’s deficit.
In fact many students fear being moved to Newton Rigg, as they believe that it will be the next campus for the chop.
The best hope for the Ambleside campus may yet be a traditional link with the Church of England, which ran St Martin’s College including the Charlotte Mason complex, before Cumbria University’s exciting takeover.
The Chancellor of Cumbria University is the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.
The Board of Governors will consider the proposals in February 2010, although the academic board, as expected rubber-stamped the plan at a meeting last night (Wednesday, Dec 16).
• An edited version of this blog will appear in next week’s pre-Christmas Private Eye.