South East Wales

University merger plan: Cardiff Met's watchdog threat

A university is considering referring the education minister's plans to force it to merge with two other universities to spending watchdogs.

Cardiff Metropolitan University claims Leighton Andrews is asking it to merge with Newport and Glamorgan without a proper business case.

The university's board chair said Mr Andrews' plan was high cost and high risk, and there were other options.

The Welsh government said it will take all consultation responses seriously.

Cardiff Met's board of governors believes that after a year of requesting to see the business case, it may not exist.

They are considering making a report to the assembly's public accounts committee - which scrutinises Welsh government expenditure - about "the manner in which the minister's office has behaved in this process with public money".

Chair Barbara Wilding said the board would also speak with the auditor general for Wales about how it was being asked to make changes without a business case.

A review last year recommended that Cardiff Met should merge with Newport and Glamorgan creating a new university for south-east Wales.

A super-university for the area is seen as more powerful and help the universities keep pace with rivals across the UK.

Newport has agreed to merge with Glamorgan but the board of Cardiff Met, formerly Uwic, voted 13-1 in favour of staying as an independent institution in July.

Earlier this month the three universities were granted more time to consult on the proposals.

Ms Wilding said that Cardiff Met's board had requested more information about the cost and risks of the proposal from Mr Andrews in October last year but had not received a response.

'Mistaken advice'

It was becoming apparent, she said, that the minister had started the legal process without the business case.

"There's a second question to come out of this - has he been given mistaken advice by those advising him or has he been misled to believe this information exists?" she said.

"We're rapidly being drawn to the conclusion it doesn't.

"The bottom line is he doesn't know how much it's going to cost so he doesn't know how much the taxpayer of Wales is going to have to put towards the cost and, just as important, he doesn't know what the risks are."

Mr Andrews previously said he believed those affected by the proposals already had "sufficient information available to them to respond meaningfully to the consultation process".

But Cardiff Met disputes this and is threatening to take the matter further.

"The governors are not against the merger. This would be the largest university in the UK - in south-east Wales," said Ms Wilding.

"The business case - where is it to support that? We don't have it."

Working collaboratively

She said livelihoods were at stake and students faced uncertainty about the future.

The board's preference is for an independent Cardiff Met working collaboratively with a merged Newport and Glamorgan university.

Mr Andrews has accused critics of "denigrating" Glamorgan and Newport, adding that the merger is vital for the universities' survival.

He launched his proposals for the future of higher education in Wales in November 2011, saying he wanted "strong" universities.

A Welsh government spokesperson said that the Wales Audit Office was "well aware" of the issues to do with reconfiguration in higher education in south east Wales.

It said that following a Wales Audit Office report in 2009, the assembly audit committee - the predecessor to the public accounts committee - concluded the Welsh government and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales needed to encourage better collaboration with universities.

"We'll take all responses to the consultation extremely seriously," the spokesperson added.

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