Placing your faith in academic administrators

In the great morass of unanswered questions about the Wye Concordat, one thing does become clear: the absence of hard fact means you have to take an awful lot on trust. So when it comes to the faith factor, how do the high and mighty of Imperial fare?

Consider these two internal reports from the college, both concerned with its attitude towards Wye, and judge for yourself — you will, as usual, find them in full at the foot of the article, in print ready form.

Wye 98

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What a difference four years makes: a total about-turn on staffing

In August 1998 the then rector of Imperial Sir Ronald Oxburgh gave an upbeat assessment of the prospects for the forthcoming takeover of Wye, an event which has always been characterised as a ‘merger’, though this is somewhat disingenuous, given that the whole of Wye, with a turnover of £12m and an asset value of £16.6m, represented the equivalent of one medium-size Imperial department.

Sir Ronald wrote, in IC’s staff newspaper, that, from the point of view of the college, the reasons for merging were ‘solely academic’. The academic opportunity for IC in taking over Wye was, he went on, unique. Merger offered the college ‘probably the only realistic way’ of filling the gap in an area of research — high-tech agricultural science — he saw as key to the future. There was the opportunity to create a tripos-like course in applied natural sciences, extending across Wye and IC’s existing Huxley School. ‘It is therefore not anticipated that there would be any loss of jobs academic or otherwise as a direct result of coming together; rather the career opportunities for staff of both institutions will be widened.’

Oh, and just for good measure, he added, ‘We believe that a merger would not expose IC to any significant financial risk. The principal costs would most likely be in establishing full IT links that would allow off-site teaching from South Kensington and vice versa.’

In fact, IC appears to have got Wye effectively for free, acquiring a turnover of £12m and a property portfolio valued at £16.6m in 2002 (and now at £300m plus under the Concordat) at no real cost to itself.

And how did they feel about everything four years later? Read the extracts from the minutes of a meeting of the governing body, the IC Council, dated July 12 2002, below. My, had a lot of things changed.

After four years of Imperial management Wye was in deficit and, if nothing was done, its financial position would continue to worsen. The department was not fulfilling its academic potential. There would have to be a reduction in Wye’s academic and technical staff. ‘If all the academics who had expressed an interest in taking voluntary severance did so, the target would be achieved on that side as well.’ The dispersal of the college’s talent had begun. And, the same minutes reveal, there had also been a reduction in staff at the time of the ‘merger’ too, in spite of what the college had said in 1998.

The meeting closed with an ominous resolution that the chairman be granted delegated authority to establish a committee to demand compulsory redundancies if necessary. Were discussions already under way about the plan that was lead to the Wye Concordat at this time? We simply don’t know.

However it should be noted that one important thing had changed between 1998 and 2002. Imperial had gained a new rector, Professor Sir Richard Sykes. And sitting on this very committee in July 2002 were Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the Concordat’s academic overlord, the interesting Mr David Brooks Wilson, its property overseer, and Sir Alastair Morton, the man Mr Brooks Wilson cites as one of his mentors for the business skills he has learned along the way.

Perhaps these are mere coincidences. But given the 180-degree turnaround over staff prospects between 1998 and 2002, can anyone really believe a word Imperial says today about the ‘world class research centre’ it wants to build in Wye, alongside a stack of new housing and commercial property?

Wye’s prospects in 1998

Imperial’s view of Wye in 2002

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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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