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Troubled TVU's teaching could be farmed out

Problems at Thames Valley University are so severe that significant chunks of teaching could be hived off to neighbouring institutions, it emerged this week.

The review team appointed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England could decide that students would be best served if parts of the institution were split among neighbouring universities and further education colleges.

The Further Education Funding Council says it could send in its own inspection team to TVU and it could make separate recommendations regarding provision in the area.

Sir William Taylor was appointed head of the review team and acting vice-chancellor of TVU following the damning Quality Assurance Agency report and the resignation of vice-chancellor Mike Fitzgerald a fortnight ago.

Sir William, who got down to work at TVU this week, said he was not ruling anything in or out. He said he would be spending the coming weeks talking to as many staff and students as possible.

"Iam not going to answer the dismemberment claims at this stage. I am open to considering and discussing a whole range of possibilities that seem best judged to meet our requirements."

A Hefce spokesman said: "A lot will depend on the conclusions of the review team. If the action plan concluded that restructuring was necessary then we would be prepared to consider transitional financial support. However, we do not want to pre-empt the conclusions of the review team."

Funding council notes on the TVU action plan say that Sir William and his team should also consider "the scope for collaboration with other neighbouring higher and further education institutions to strengthen the provision for TVU's students".

On top of the major management and quality assessment problems identified in the QAA report, TVU faces a Pounds 3.8 million funding shortfall in the current year. This is due largely to undergraduate under-recruitment, which Hefce puts at 30 per cent. This under-recruitment is unlikely to be reversed quickly and so raises questions of TVU's viability in the longer term. Last year's press reports of dumbing down at TVU damaged TVU's brand image and affected its recruiting abilities.

Institutions such as Brunel, Reading and Kingston universities and East Berkshire, Reading and Uxbridge Colleges are near TVU and would be in a position to help TVU students if required. The QAA report acknowledged that the university has strengths in many academic areas and that many staff and students would do well in any university.

In addition, more than a fifth of TVU students are on further education courses funded by the FEFC. The Slough campus is dominated by further education and its catering courses are renowned.

David Albury, an education sector specialist for the Office of Public Management, said: "It is to be hoped that the institutions and agencies concerned will look for a joined-up way forward for further and higher in the west London region and the M4 corridor."

It is possible ultimately to strip any university of its degree-awarding powers but this would require an act of Parliament. This is unlikely in the case of TVU, not least because it would be embarrassing for the government, which has enjoyed close links with TVU and Dr Fitzgerald. Tony Blair opened the university's learning resources centre (LRC) at Slough in 1996 when he was opposition leader. The award-winning LRC was funded by Paul Hamlyn and designed by Richard Rogers. Lord Hamlyn, TVU's chancellor, is listed in the Labour Party annual reports for 1997 and 1998 as a benefactor donating more than Pounds 5,000 to the party in 1996 and 1997.

Letters, page 17. David Albury, page 16

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