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Reading University and its ‘Environmentally Focused Decisions’

Pat Phillipps

At a lavish ceremony at St James’s Palace last year, the University of Reading received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its work on climate change. The University Vice-Chancellor Robert van de Noort said in an interview with the local press:

‘Our world-class research in this field is well known, but RU is doing much more than research… It is critical that the next generation understands the importance of sustainable living as they will grow up in a world shaped by environmentally focused decisions being made today. University of Reading is at the forefront of giving young people greater access to the facts.’

All very well, no doubt. But let’s give people, young and old, access to some more facts, shall we?

Close to the Hall Farm area the University wants to turn into a ‘garden village’, the University once owned a field on a gentle slope, with fine views over the Loddon Valley and Farley Hill for users of the public footpath running across the top of the field. On one side, a stream flowed down to the Loddon, and beside that a footpath went from Shinfield to the Loddon Valley area, very popular with walkers. But now, that footpath has been closed for two years, the field has hundred of tightly-packed houses built on it, and developers and their cement mixers are still ensconced on the land, for how long we don’t know.

Here are photos of the formerly University-owned land, south of Cutbush Lane, Shinfield, before and after UoR sold it:

The University’s ‘environmentally focused decision’ was… to sell off the rural environment to developers. As a result, we in Shinfield now have hundreds more vehicles on the road, hundreds more people struggling to get doctors’ appointments and hundreds more children needing hard-to-find school places. Just as Van de Noort said, we do indeed find ourselves in a world shaped by ‘decisions being made today’, and in the Shinfield area they’re very much the University’s decisions.

So let’s agree with the University Vice-Chancellor that the UoR is doing a heck of a lot more than research into the environment. Around Shinfield, it impacts the environment very directly. It sells off for housing development land often given to it just for agricultural use, according a Guardian article of a few years back.

But surely a university keen to uphold its ‘environmentally focused’ reputation does not destroy the countryside gladly? How could it do that? And believe it or not, Robert Van de Noort himself has spoken out firmly against building on green spaces. Oh yes he has. This was at a local Community Relations Meeting in January 2019, when he exclaimed indignantly: “Just imagine if you take green space away!” Just imagine, indeed. Well said, Robert!

Oh, wait: He was talking about a suggestion that rather than students having to rent accommodation in the town, accommodation could be built for them on the University’s Whiteknights campus. Now that was absolutely out of the question, when it came to the rolling green vistas on his own patch.

But still, let’s be fair: No-one would believe the University of Reading is aiming for the wanton destruction of our rural environment. There must surely be a pressing reason why it’s prepared to overrule its heartfelt green principles, and give itself what must be a truly terrible crisis of conscience, over its environmentally destructive land sale decisions.

There is a reason. At that same Community Relations Meeting, the Vice-Chancellor spoke of ‘balancing assets’. It was necessary, we gathered, for the Uni to sell its agricultural land for development because of balance sheet ratios, the need to gear debt to operating income, and debt to fixed assets, and suchlike.

In plain English, UoR had lost a lot of money.

Under the previous Vice-Chancellor, not Van de Noort, Reading had opened a big new campus in Malaysia (see picture below).

It quickly went wrong, though, when students failed to turn up in anything like the forecast numbers. University World News, an online global higher education publication reported on the debacle in August 2021. ‘In 2019… the University of Reading Malaysia was forced to halve its staff and close some programmes after spending some £27 million setting up and operating the university between 2011 and 2019, accumulating losses of over £20 million.’ Geoffrey Williams, a professor at Malaysia University of Science and Technology and an expert on Malaysian higher education management and finance was interviewed by the publication. He commented: “Reading (in Malaysia) is a failure financially.”

The University undoubtedly took a big financial hit. The Times Higher Education reported that Reading ‘ignored warning signals’ over the Malaysia branch campus and called its £27 million loss just in 2017-18 a ‘salutary lesson on the challenges associated with international ventures’.

So you learn your salutary lessons in life, and you pay for your mistakes? Ermm, not exactly, in the University’s case. It’s us residents of Shinfield and Arborfield who will pick up the tab, if the Uni gets its way. We’ll have to pay in future for their Malaysian mistake with the loss of our last remaining extended green space, and an estimated twelve thousand extra people and their vehicles jostling us for whatever local infrastructure we might have at that point.

That’s what we’re facing, if the Lib Dems fail to honour their pre-2022

election promise, and they leave the University’s proposal to build 4,500

houses on the Loddon Valley in the Local Plan.

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