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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 May 2007, 14:31 GMT 15:31 UK
Experimental college eyes future
By Jessica Dacey
BBC News South West

One of the sculptures dotted around the Dartington Hall estate
The college was founded on an ethos of experimentalism
As a haven for studying the arts, there can be few places as idyllic as Dartington College of Arts in Devon.

Its home in landscaped grounds and 14th Century buildings helps to foster a tight-knit, creative community.

Its future now hangs in the balance after governors decided it had to move to Cornwall to survive.

Objectors have called for it to stay and are hoping to block millions of pounds in EU funding needed for the move.

The clash of opinions has put the college under the microscope.

At the heart of the college is an ethos of experimentalism.

It was founded in 1961 as part of the "Dartington Experiment" in which the owners of the Dartington Hall estate started a rural regeneration project to halt the decline of an area.

Over time the college developed a leading reputation for experimental arts practices and students to pass through its doors included musician Ravi Shankar and composer Benjamin Britten.

But faced with a 20m repair bill for its accommodation, the college has had to make decisions about its future.

A study came up with two choices: remain on the Dartington Trust estate or merge with another institution.

'Catalytic effect'

The favourite - relocating to University College Falmouth (UCF) and creating a new arts university - was approved by the Board of Governors in March, and the wheels were set in motion to see if it could be achieved, despite a wave of protests.

The college is not held back by history - I think that's why students are coming around to the idea
Daniel Cooke, Dartington College of Arts Students' Union

With the proposed relocation and merger set to cost 25m according to consultants for the Regional Development Agency, the college move still depends on funding from the EU. Until a decision is made this autumn, the college and UCF are continuing to picture their joint future.

Dartington's principal Andrew Brewerton envisages exporting its "brand" to Falmouth.

"The most important thing is that we preserve the kind of ethos and values and approach to teaching and to the artistic processes that we have developed in Dartington over the years," he said.

"We know that that will require change and Falmouth knows it will require change. But we know that the prize will be greater than the sum of its parts."

UCF itself is looking towards a new institution that would "take centre stage as the focal point of the arts in the South West".

Dartington's situation has echoes of the difficulties facing other small specialist higher education institutions.

Student accommodation in need of repair at Dartington College of Arts
The colleges faces a 20m repair bill to update its accommodation

Money problems also forced Bretton Hall College, a similar arts college sited in a Yorkshire country estate, to uproot and merge with University of Leeds in 2001.

In the South West, Seal Hayne Agricultural College and Rolle College merged several years ago with the University of Plymouth.

Alice Hynes, of the Guild HE, a lobbying group representing specialist small colleges, said: "There are threats to all higher education institutions.

"And it is very critical for any small specialist institution to be very active in how it manages risks.

"For Dartington some of its risks were perhaps not within its control to manage.

"The choice is being made to try and strengthen Dartington and Falmouth by bringing them together.

"It does in one sense, however, have the sense of losing a specialist institution from the South Hams."

A study by South Hams Council estimated that if the college left the Dartington Hall estate, the nearby town of Totnes would suffer a loss of 4.7m annually.

Campaigners are calling for a rethink on the plans and for any outside funding to be used to keep the college in the area.

When I arrived here two and a half years ago I picked up a legacy of problems and there was a very stark decision to make
Andrew Brewerton, Dartington College of Arts principal

Richard Gonski, chair of the Save Dartington College Campaign, which put its case to the SWRDA on Thursday, says a move would result in the college being "gobbled up" by the university.

"Dartington is a completely unique place, it is jewel in a crown. It has unique staff and the ethos on which it was founded.

"We have always seen the move as a decision to close the college and we are fighting that in any way we can."

'Stark decision'

Prof Brewerton said Dartington's size - about 600 students - made it vulnerable, as it had the same accountability as a larger institution but fewer resources.

"When I arrived here two and a half years ago I picked up a legacy of problems and there was a very stark decision to make, do we close the college and how do we find the opportunity in the crisis?

"The college takes all kinds of things from its environment but it is not dependent on that environment. If we believed that it was terminally dependent on that environment then we would be honour bound to close the college."

While students remain divided over the possibility of a move, Daniel Cooke, president of the Students' Union, says many are warming to the idea of a move if the quality of teaching and its international profile can be maintained.

He said: "The college has a history of evolving, in the way it teaches and in its engagement in the arts. It is not held back by history. I think that's why students are coming around to the idea.

"We are taking so much to Falmouth, a legacy and history, and Dartington students are creative and exciting wherever they are.

"Of course, there's no way on earth it can be the same, but just as long as there's a Dartington somewhere."




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