Imperial may need Wye, but…

Does Wye really need Imperial? One rather gets the impression this is a question that has never occurred to the hierarchy of Imperial College. They are, after all, a busy bunch of people. Introducing massive development to Wye is just one of the controversies Professor Richard Sykes and his team have taken upon themselves. Imperial’s decision to jump ship from the University of London — which will probably lead to the latter’s dissolution — is turning more than a few heads in town too.

Small wonder, then, that Imperial feels able to turn to a distant Kent village and say… take what’s on offer, good and bad, or we’ll abandon you too, with all the dire consequences that will follow. At least we can begin to appreciate their style now, and it’s not exactly cosy, is it?

But, while it may never have occurred to Prof Sykes and his crew, this ultimatum does raise a few simple and serious questions. How important to Wye is Imperial in its present state? Would the area be plunged into economic stagnation if Imperial did pack its bags and head back up the M20? Or is there a viable alternative use for the existing college buildings — for other academic institutions, say — that could maintain or improve their present economic contribution to the area?

We’d love to offer you some firm answers but we can’t. One reason this site exists is to give people who may have those the chance to share them with the rest of us. Here, though, are a few thoughts.

A decade ago Wye appeared to be a thriving, independent college, largely based around agriculture. Internally it had serious economic problems the administration of the time seemed unable to address, which ultimately led to its takeover by Imperial, and, of course, the issues we all face today. Imperial did not reverse the downward trend. If anything, it has accelerated since 2000 when they took over. Even recent Wye residents may recall the days when the Ashford Express regaled us with stories of champagne-lad aggie toffs creating a little mayhem on the streets, when gaggles of togaed blokes would stagger from the New Flying Horse to the union bar, and strange societies held even stranger initiation rites (some of which, we are reliably informed, once involved goldfish). It all seems very tame now. Who would have thought we’d come to miss the old days?

It’s an open secret that the student intake at Wye has diminished and changed in nature. There are fewer students, and considerably fewer staff. For a body that seems obsessed with ‘academic excellence’ Imperial does seem to have let go rather a lot of professors and tutors over the years. There can’t be many locals who do not know someone who can now describe themselves as ‘ex-Wye college’.

How many students and how many staff are there today? The campus website doesn’t reveal. You can find out one thing there, though. There are no vacancies of any kind, academic, technical or clerical, or so it seems. The college is doing what, to an outside eye, it has done for several years, limping along. Whatever economic contribution it makes to Wye at the moment — and it does — the level seems unlikely to change until, or unless, the magic plan comes through.

So what difference would Imperial’s disappearance make to the area? The instant reaction is to think… good riddance. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of the college’s existing employees, at least some of whom must be feeling pretty fed up all round at the moment. The loss of the college would, like the closure of any employer of some size, throw people out of work and cause considerable personal hardship for a good number. Let’s think of that before everyone tells Imperial to take a hike.

In the private sector companies do come and go. If Imperial’s presence is in doubt, it’s up to the relevant public bodies to do what they can to help fill the gap. One assumes here, of course, that Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council will rush in to come up with some alternative strategy should the strength of opposition to the Imperial project prove so overwhelming that it never gets beyond the talking stage.

Imperial’s ultimatum, though, must be taken at face value. If the campaign to stop the Sykes bulldozer succeeds, the existing college structure, such as it is, will disappear, with economic consequences which have yet to be calculated. If you want the former, you need to come up with a suggestion to deal with the latter. Imperial — cleverly or ruthlessly, depending on your viewpoint — have ensured that the status quo is not an option. Wye will change, one way or another. The only question is whether it’s the way Imperial — with the apparent backing of ABC and KCC — want. Or in some other fashion, in which the buildings and land of the college are put to alternative use.

If you have any suggestions, we’d be happy to publish them.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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