Civil Servant-Turned-Dean Says Colleges Can Make Collaboration on Research and Resources a Success without a Risky, Costly Merger; Robert Llewellyn Jones Talks to David Prichard on the Future of Higher Education in Wales and Why the Decision to Merge the WDA into the Welsh Government Was the Right One

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Byline: Robert Llewellyn

[bar] EAN of the Cardiff School of Management at Cardiff Metropolitan University, David Pritchard, is time expired.

Later this year the 65-year-old former civil service mandarin, who was management board director of economic development and transport for the Welsh Government, leaves academia and what he calls "a second career which began in 2006".

At his office in the School of Management this archetypal civil servant, softly spoken and undemonstrative, looks back on his career and talks about the issues that face Wales and the institute of higher education he has helped to transform.

The first issue of concern is that of the proposed merger of Cardiff Metropolitan with the universities of Glamorgan and Newport, something he opposes not vehemently, but objectively with a well reasoned defence of the status quo.

Looking out of the window at the distant prospect of Llandaff Cathedral and an almost rural setting, he said: "In my personal view the proposal of moving to a forced formal merger is loaded with risk. It would be understandable if the universities in South-East Wales were failing but no-one has ever suggested that. It would be, in the extreme, taking three well-performing institutions and threatening two of them with forced closure."

He continued: "The risks associated with a merger are significant and what are the alternatives? We have been depicted as Cardiff Metropolitan University wanting to remain entirely above the battle - unconnected to the collaboration agenda and unwilling to work with close neighbours.

This is a travesty of the truth."

The depth of his conviction is apparent as his argument develops.

He said: "My personal view is we can achieve everything the minister [Leighton Andrews, Minister for Education] wants and possibly more with less cost and less risk by willingly embracing an ambitious collaboration with Glamorgan and Newport.

"The minister is keen and rightly so, on boosting research, and his agenda for collaboration is spot on. I haven't heard anyone argue against this and universities engaging effectively."

So what are the alternatives? Here the Sir Humphrey in his character comes to the fore.

There are, he explains, five things that could happen that would make a reality of what the minister would like without going down the merger route.

The first, he said, centres on the research excellence exercise that the Welsh Government organises every five years.

"One of the challenges universities like us faces is creating critical mass since we have pockets of expertise that are not large enough to get funding for resources required," he said. "Although we have strong partnerships there are instances where it would make sense to pool our resources and submit joint submissions. Work could start on that now, you don't need a merger or legislation."

This he claims would increase the Management School's enterprise capacity which currently stands at pounds 1m.

The Dean said: "Glamorgan is doing good work, as is Newport. If we were to pool our resources and create a commercial board, with a commercially aware director and create a brand that would become a powerhouse for business in South East Wales helping the Welsh Government to connect higher education and the renewal agenda, it could be done now."

This, he insists, could be done quickly without the need for a merger just a willingness to pool sovereignty in the interests of Wales.

His all-encompassing arguments range over teaching, student numbers, areas of specialisation through to back office functions that, when pooled, could save money.

"The timing is perfect," he said.

He continued: "The UK Government has recently removed some of the VAT obstacles to shared services in the higher education sector that would make this strategy more economic. …