Deep in the Devon countryside, nestling in a bend of the River Dart, is one of Britain's great institutions, Dartington College of Arts, famous for its experimental, not to say wacky, approach to teaching music, art and the performing arts.
Situated on the Darting-ton Estate two miles from Totnes, it is treasured by the local hippie community that it has partly spawned. But it is also recognised by higher education officials for its charismatic and innovative teaching. So it is no surprise that an almighty row is raging about its planned merger with Falmouth College of Arts in Cornwall.
This will mean the closure of Dartington College and the integration of its courses with those in Falmouth. "It is very sad," says Sam Richards, a part-time music lecturer who was sacked over his ferocious opposition to the merger. "The whole ethos of Dartington can't and won't be transplanted down there. Once you have taken it away from the place where it grew from, it will become something else."
This normally sleepy corner of the South-west has been alive with accusation and rumour since the merger proposal was leaked to the local press in November 2006. A Save Darting-ton Campaign was mounted and Richards began writing his sharp messages on the website.
"The current principal keeps saying that he does-n't want to be the last principal of Dartington," he wrote. "So can someone, anyone, tell my why he proposes to close it. This oxymoronic conundrum beats anything on Countdown. However amusing this kind of malice-in-blunderland nonsense may be, I'd rather have a Mad Hatter or an opium-smoking caterpillar in charge any day."
According to Richards, this satire led to him being suspended on full pay and banned from college premises. He was later summarily dismissed at a disciplinary hearing but appealed and was offered reinstatement if he apologised to Professor Andrew Brewerton, the principal.
Richards did apologise but Brewerton refused to accept his apology on the grounds that Richards failed to acknowledge that his offence was gross misconduct. In addition, Richards was disingenuous in characterising his attitude as satirical, according to the principal.
So, Richards remains dismissed and the case rumbles on, with Richards now planning to sue the college for unfair dismissal.
Behind the fury lie some uncomfortable financial facts. Dartington does not fit in today's higher education world. Founded in 1961, having evolved as part of the original Dartington experiment in rural regeneration, it has never owned its own premises, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for it to borrow money to develop in a climate of competition and top-up fees. For some years its survival has been questioned.
"We are the smallest practice-based art school in the land," says Brewerton.
Because of its size (580 undergraduates, 105 postgraduates) it receives extra funding for teaching from the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) but this is not expected to continue for ever.
Anyway, this does not help with the money it desperately needs to upgrade its student accommodation, some of which is described as a "disgrace". Particularly decrepit is Foxhole, the campus that it inherited from the progressive independent school of the same name that was closed in the 1980s.
In an effort to raise some money for residences, the college formulated a scheme with the construction company McAlpine, but the Dartington Trust refused to endorse it on the grounds that it could not guarantee the 30-year repayment, according to Brewerton. …