We report today what we hoped in our first editorial of this academic year was not the case: that it appears the decision to merge the Edinburgh College of Art with the University of Edinburgh was driven primarily by financial instability rather than the spirit of academic fellowship.
A sustained examination of ECA’s financial records for the last five years, alongside other information obtained through freedom of information requests and conversations with ECA students has revealed a startling narrative of economic decline at the college. Moreover, it has shown that senior staff - and most particularly the principal, Professor Ian Howard - felt nothing of the college’s financial ruin in their own pay packets.
The pattern of rising debt, falling liquidity, over-ambitious expenditure and high staff costs which is clear from ECA’s account statements leaves little doubt as to why ECA found itself on the edge of bankruptcy. In particular, the ludicrous expense of purchasing Evolution House - for the sake of which administrators both pillaged their own coffers by borrowing £1.5 million from the endowment fund, and all but mortgaged the entire college to secure a £10 million commercial loan - is shown to have left ECA bearing a long-term debt burden almost as large as its total endowment.
Nor can it cannot be claimed that this weighty debt remained in the abstract: successful institutions do not decide suddenly to reduce their staffing budgets by £1 million, necessitating a voluntary redundancy scheme and major cuts to support staff. Nor do those cuts go unnoticed, as students’ union president Francesca Miller acknowledged to us this week.
ECA spokespeople, meanwhile, have flatly denied that the college was “forced” to merge with the University of Edinburgh, or that financial desperation played a role in that decision. In annual reports and official statements, they have painted a suspiciously rosy picture of major expenditures as being part of an illusive long-term plan. But the facts we have shown today; the facts that have been previously reported; the fact that the merger will require a £14 million payout from the Scottish Funding Council and the harsh criticisms offered by Holyrood education secretary Michael Russell when we approached him for comment this week, suggest that the time has come to drop the facade: everything at Lauriston Place is not all right.