An Imperial student answers back…

You’d be very mistaken if you thought that everyone at Imperial is behind the plan to turn Wye into a building site. After a meek letter backing the idea the previous week, the college’s newspaper contained a rapid response from a fellow student making some very valid points that we don’t expect to see Sykes and co answering very easily.

Read on to see what one Imperial student thinks of the whole Wye Park debacle.

The author is Nichola Hawkins… and if she’d like to expand on any of these points here, she will be very welcome.

Felix Letters Page May 26, 2006

Regarding Laurence Fahrni’s letter in Felix last week, that point has repeatedly been made, in even more patronising tones, by senior college staff when addressing the people of Wye.

However, I feel I must point out a few flaws in this apparently compelling argument:

  1. It would be naive to think that this decision affects only one piece of countryside. Once AONB designation has been disregarded, this sets a very dangerous precedent for other building projects on land otherwise regarded as protected. Worse still, Britain would then be required to demonstrate an even greater level of hypocrisy in asking developing countries to protect their own wildlife habitats – some of which act as major carbon stores – when they, too, have energy needs that could be met by growing biofuels on that land.
  2. Wye’s research has already made significant contributions to worldwide problems, such as food production, rural development and environmental management. Biofuel research could have been initiated under the original Wye setup; and yet in Imperial’s hands, Wye’s crop-growing and land-management expertise continues to be slowly dismantled. Most people opposing Imperial’s grand plans would dearly love to see Wye continuing to play a part in land-based research for the good of humanity, but are unconvinced of the need for large-scale building development before this can happen.
  3. If these plans really do stem from a genuine wish to contribute to the world’s knowledge about non-food crops, which have indeed been identified as an important matter at levels up to the UN, then surely the necessary funding would be provided from a source other than requiring a college to turn into a property developer and sell off land with environmental value of its own for housing?
  4. Income from property development and sale is the antithesis of sustainability in economic as well as environmental terms: once sold, that land can be put to no further use to further any of the College’s central aims.
  5. Some plans suggest that the actual biofuels research could not begin until 2011 or even 2018, whereas housing development and sales would begin by 2008.

Considering the extent to which Imperial’s stated plans for Wye have changed in just 2 years (2 years ago Imperial were reassuring Wye that Agricultural Sciences would continue at least to the end of the recovery period set out at the time of the merger), and with a potential gap of several years between housing development taking place and biofuels research commencing, it is understandable that some people in Wye can envisage Imperial taking the housing profit and then suddenly changing their plans again, before the first short-rotation willow stand is ever planted.

In conclusion, support for the supposed end does not necessitate support for absolutely any means, especially where those means may not themselves be necessary.

Finally, please bear in mind that Wye College could have sold off land itself, and may have made enough money this way to stave off the need to merge with Imperial, but this was dismissed as unsustainable in the longer term. The point of the merger was to secure a longer-term future for Wye, as both an institution and a community, to continue tackling issues of global importance in a sustained and measured way.


About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome, Pieter Vos in Amsterdam, adaptions of the Sarah Lund stories in Copenhagen, and versions of Shakespeare worked for Audible.
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4 Responses to An Imperial student answers back…

  1. G. West says:

    Boy – was London Uni naive when virtually giving Wye College away to Imperial believing it would ensure its survival as a scholastic institution?

    And talking about naivity – how gullible is Mr Arthur (see ‘Now the nationals are starting to look’) in having confidence that Mr Cooling would reveal details of his meeting recently at County Hall with his boss Paul Clokie, KCC and Imperial?

    Silence is a strong communicator!

  2. Angela says:

    It was the former governors of Wye College who signed away the assets to Imperial. They failed to manage the College effectively, despite desperate asset stripping during the mid 1990s. They sold Court Lodge, James Wyllie House, the Old Vicarage gardens, Winterbourne, and a score of cottages around The Green, Coldharbour and Silks Farm. When that failed to clear the College’s debts of about (save-wye informs us), £1.6m they exchanged its remaing assets and good name for Imperial’s empty promises. The blight and uncertainty felt by the village and the few remaining college staff is caused by the former governors’s naivety. Blame them, not London University.

    Mr Arthur is not naive or gullible, quite the reverse. His comment in ‘Now the Nationals are starting to look’ is entirely ironic.

  3. Berkeley Hill says:

    Angela is being unfair to the governing body of Wye College in blaming it for the present situation. I was a staff-representative governor during the difficult 1990s, and one who supported the merger with Imperial College in 2000. I can assure Angela that the purpose of selling the proporty she lists was primarily to finance redevelopments (such as the new library/IT centre) that were seen as necessary to the long-term viability of academic activity at Wye. The negative aspects of such sales were considered at length. These included the consequences of shifting capital from housing, that might be sold if things became critical, to the library and student accommodation, which were less easily to dispose of.

    The continuing problem of recruiting students in the 1990s, coupled with other causes of imbalance in the operating budget, meant that, when Imperial College proposed a merger with Wye College, the offer was very attractive. It is worth remembering that Imperial’s management iniated the merger discussions for reasons of their (then) vision; it was not a case of Wye approaching Imperial as a way of solving its deficit. Other options were considered, though it was clear that small colleges were likely to face increasing problems and that Wye would probably need to join up eventually with some other institution. The governors were also aware that previous mergers involving Imperial had been less than smooth. Even if all went to plan, some restructuring was inevitable; the consequences for individual staff members needed sensitive handling. These issues were all taken very seriously by the governing body.

    The decision by the governors to support the merger was entirely reasonable given the assurances from the then management of Imperial, the vision for the combined college it expounded, and the prospects of what was likely to happen to the finances of an independent Wye College.

    We were not to know that a change of Rector and other senior staff would lead to a radically different vision and management style, departing in significant ways from the assurances we had been given. With hindsight, Wye’s governors may have acted differently. However, at the time the decision had to be taken, merger with Imperial was the best option available. Governors cannot be blamed for events that were difficult to predict and impossible to influence.

  4. Angela says:

    Dr Hill I accept your point that Wye’s former governors had every reason to beiieve Imperial’s assurances in 2000. Other senior figures have confirmed the sequence of events leading up to the “merger”, but none used your diplomatic language to describe their views of the current leadership of Imperial.

    If Imperial can dismiss every formal agreement made before the new rector took over, why should we believe anything the college says now? Soon we will be offered inducements. When that happens we need to remember the present administration’s track record, and its perfidious and utterly ruthless asset stripping approach. The Concordat was “to be binding in honour only”. We can all form a view on this interpretation of “honour”.

    Thankyou Nichola Hawkins for an excellent piece. It is refreshing to see long overdue prominence given to sustainability and Imperial’s hypocrisy in trashing a high quality environment supposedly to save the planet.

    Beware Greeks bearing gifts.

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