A potentially landmark merger deal in Catholic higher education has entered the final phase of negotiations, writes Christopher Lamb.
Two London institutions – St Mary’s University, Twickenham and Heythrop College, Kensington – have been in talks for almost a year.
A decision in principle had been expected from the governing bodies last week but this has now been pushed back to the early summer.
The discussions were initiated last May by Heythrop, a 400-year-old Jesuit college with around 650 students, now facing questions about its future due to financial problems. Last year it posted a £600,000 budget shortfall and has announced it is not recruiting undergraduates in September.
While officially the proposal is being described as a “partnership” between the two, the minutes from a Heythrop governors’ meeting last year show that the college is now talking about a “merger” of the institutions.
Students at Heythrop, who initially opposed the partnership talks and took part in an overnight “sit-in” protest last month in the student library, have now voted in favour of the discussions continuing. Minutes from a students’ union meeting report students being told that Heythrop is faced with a choice between a deal with St Mary’s or closure.
Speaking to The Tablet this week Francis Campbell, the vice chancellor of St Mary’s, said the model under discussion was one that would see “integration” between Heythrop and his university. “If something like this were to work it would be along the lines of something that would be integrated rather than something that would be completely separate,” he said. St Mary’s, a former teacher training college, has 6,000 students, is in sound financial health and was awarded university status last year.
“There is an opportunity here for two institutions to achieve more together than they could apart,” Mr Campbell, a former British Ambassador to the Holy See, said adding that any deal needed to satisfy St Mary’s requirements on financial stability, academic standards and quality of the student experience.
He explained that the Jesuits have “a rich track record across the world in higher education” and that while the Catholic community in England and Wales had vibrant primary and secondary schools there was an opportunity for St Mary’s and Heythrop to build a “strong institution”.
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