Imperial and Wye: the ship was sinking from the start

New documents from the government’s university funding body, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), reveal that Sir Richard Sykes was looking for a way out of Imperial’s deal to buy Wye less than eighteen months after the merger was formally agreed.

In January 2002, a year after Sykes’ arrival as rector, concerned officials from HEFCE — the body that funds English universities — reported that Imperial feared the Wye deal was a mistake, and were looking at a restructure, closure, or transfer to another college — with help from HEFCE, which had paid £2.5m for the original merger.

So alarmed were some HEFCE officers that one commented, ‘I find (this) pretty astonishing, given that we have only just given them £2.5m to support the merger… if Imperial do decide to get out of Wye, there must be real question about claiming our £2.5m back.’

The latest documents, produced as a result of a Freedom of Information request by save-wye, also reveal…

  • The figures Imperial released last week, which show the college expected to conclude the merger at little or no cost to themselves, turned out to be highly inaccurate. In fact the merger cost £5m, and HEFCE turned down Imperial’s request to foot the whole bill, only agreeing to half.
  • Those same figures failed to mention that Imperial had also stumped up loans to cover Wye’s debts and running costs — eventually writing off almost £3.5m in unrepaid debts and lost interest.
  • Redundancy, retirement costs and professional fees added almost £1m to the final bill.
  • Undergraduate and postgraduate student entry figures more than halved after Imperial’s takeover, in part because the college began to demand the same entry requirements for Wye as it wanted of students at its main London campus. The obvious result — students capable of gaining entrance to a London degree course expected an education in London, not in rural Kent — never seems to have occurred to anyone.

In short, Imperial’s takeover of Wye seems to have been a running disaster even before it formally began in August 2000. For the latest horror stories, and a glimpse into how yet another large central government institution views Imperial, read on…

Whispers

Wye residents aren’t the only ones who find Imperial uncommunicative. Here a senior HEFCE official tries to make sense of the college’s doubts about the merger.

HEFCE is the body that supervises the flow of tax payers’ money from central government to the coffers of universities. It does so under strict rules, and with close monitoring to make sure the cash is used for the purpose it was given. The purpose, in the case of Imperial’s takeover with Wye, was two-fold. First, to put the small Kent college on a firm financial basis after years of struggle against the kind of money problems that were endemic in institutions of its size. And second, to give Imperial a foothold in a variety of bio and agricultural sciences where it felt it needed to develop its skills.

Imperial, in a bid report to HEFCE, summarised its aims thus, ‘This merger is founded on a vision of academic synergy between the two institutions which will maintain and improve the quality, range and scope of research and education available nationally and internationally… The strategy for the merger is to enhance the teaching and research at Wye, re-orientating Wye’s provision and output to the quality and resourced levels of Imperial to the benefit of students and the sectors currently served by both colleges. Top quality teaching and research in food, agriculture and the rural environment needs to be fostered and maintained.’

Nice words. But they came to nothing. The first warning bells start to sound in an HEFCE audit report in 2000 marked ‘audit in confidence, not for disclosure to or discussion with non-HEFCE personnel’. ‘The merger has been amicable with the majority of staff accepting the situation. The process has been well communicated which has contributed to the smooth running of the changes. Costs of the merger, which have risen dramatically, have been well publicised within both colleges.’

Costs? Last week we released here the documents Imperial provided in response to a Freedom of Information request asking for all the relevant information about the merger, including its financial implications. The documents they released are summarised and available here. These implied Imperial was relaxed about the merger costs, and believed they added up to £2.5m which would be covered by a grant from HEFCE. Not for the first time, though, a lot was left unsaid.

Nowhere, for example, is there a single document in this supposedly full FoI release from the college which reveals, as HEFCE documents do today, that Imperial bunged Wye a £2.6m loan on the same day in 1998 that the two parties signed heads of agreement for the merger that was to take another two years to complete. In January 2000 Imperial threw another half a million in the pot to meet ‘the identifiable costs of merger prior to 1 August 2000’ even though, as it made clear in one more begging letter to HEFCE, its resources were ‘already fully committed’ elsewhere. Redundancy, retirement and professional costs alone amounted to £1m, and all this time the student population of the college — on which its financial lifeline depended — was soon disappearing at a much higher rate than it ever did when Wye was independent.

By March 2001 Imperial was circulating a document to HEFCE, summarised below, which pleaded that the real costs of the merger might be more than £10m.

£10m

Not a word of this appears in the Imperial FoI release either, or, so far as we can find, in the published minutes of any meeting of an Imperial governing body, which seems odd given that the cost of this project appears to have risen from virtually nothing to £10m plus in three years. But then Imperial’s estimates of the value of Wye Park vary between £1billion and £1.5billion in meetings held days apart, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

None of this pleading of poverty cut any ice with HEFCE. It turned down Imperial’s original bid for £5m, and a second one that followed for £2.9m. Just £2.5m was all Imperial was going to get, and in February 2002 that looked briefly in doubt following a visit by an HEFCE official only identified as ‘Howard’ to Imperial. Says a confidential internal e-mail by HEFCE officer Stephen Marston…

The main item of discussion was that Imperial have got concerns about their merger with Wye, fearing that it may have been a mistake… So they may want to restructure or close it — and ask for financial help to do so. Which I find pretty astonishing, given that we have only just paid £2.5m to support the merger. If anyone has already heard more, about this, please can you let me know? Howard said he gave no commitment. But if Imperial do decide to get out of Wye, there must be real question about claiming our £2.5m back.

Then ensued one of those brief e-mail dialogues that invite a lot of reading between the lines. Stephen Marston begins another contribution, ‘As ever with IC, the Chinese whispers have made a dog’s breakfast, if you see what I mean.’

The idea of Imperial selling off Wye to other colleges was, he says, initially brokered by Howard, the HEFCE officer, as a helpful suggestion. ‘However, they explicitly raised the issue… yesterday whether to take up Howard’s offer and walk away from Wye as being too difficult, and decided not to — so they will press ahead with their plans, and are not looking to us for any extra money or brokerage of transfers.’

So in February 2002 Imperial turned down an offer from HEFCE to broker — and perhaps even help fund — the transfer of the entire college to another educational institution, one who might, perhaps, make a go of it. It did this to ‘press ahead with their plans’. What plans? Surely the ones which got the college the HEFCE grant in the first place — which entailed developing Wye as an academic base.

This never happened of course. Student numbers continued to dwindle. New courses failed to come online. Wye’s steady decline over the years simply steepened, and in less than two years its demise as a conventional college would be formally announced.

You can read these documents for yourself below. They are very detailed; we may well have missed some points. If so, please let us know. To us they point out several things that potential partners in Wye Park ought to note…

  • Imperial isn’t great at budgeting
  • Imperial isn’t great at planning large projects
  • Imperial isn’t great at delivering on its promises

Whether HEFCE will be happy that its £2.5m of public money paid for a tiny trickle of students through Wye, before the college’s effective closure, remains to be seen. The original fears it had in 2002 now seem to have been realised. Perhaps now is the time to ask for our money back.

But it is also worth noting another piece of timing. When Imperial backed away from an escape route from Wye in February 2002 it may have had something else in mind when it talked about its determination to ‘press ahead with… plans’. Around this time it was planning to take on board someone new for a very important post within the college.

In April 2002, two months after this opportunity to wash its hands of Wye was dismissed, he was in place: Mr David Brooks Wilson, the new estates director, and a man who, as any reader of this site understands, knows more about property development in the Ashford area than just about anyone else on the planet.

First HEFCE document release (3.5mb, 70 pages)

Second HEFCE document release (1.7mb, 49 pages)

Third HEFCE document release (924kb, 23 pages)

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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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One Response to Imperial and Wye: the ship was sinking from the start

  1. Alan Paterson says:

    Hi David

    I just wanted to say how profoundly grateful I am that you and Justin continue to slug away at this with such determination.

    The revelations in this piece make the sequence of events much clearer – and demonstrate how our money (the taxpayers’) has been spent in recent years on Wye. And now they want to rape our landscape and environment!

    It makes one all the more determined………..

    Alan Paterson

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