Every Vice-Chancellor arriving at the University of Northampton discovers that they have a tannery on site and a series of courses teaching leather. This usually creates a series of immediate enquiries: why it is there, who are the students and what does it cost? The history of UK leather, and specifically tanning and shoemaking in Northampton, is rolled out as a nervous industry fights to keep the subject. We are here again, but this time it is really serious.
Twenty years ago, I was part of this process with Vice-Chancellor Ann Tate. She decided to keep the leather provision and, with it, she updated the courses and refurbished the tannery, with help from industry. This involved replacing an aged collection of full-scale machines discarded by UK tanneries with a proper teaching tannery. What had historically been the British School of Leather Technology (BSLT) became the Institute of Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT).
When Ann Tate left, and a new Vice-Chancellor arrived, leather was reasonably well placed. The unexpected move to a new campus started with a promise of full relocation but that soon fell apart. Large amounts of money were spent instead on planning to convert an old building nearby that the town owned; then came to a stop when the town pulled the building back for other uses. Suddenly, at the very last moment, an agreement was reached to build a new ICLT complete with a tannery, research and teaching facilities – the new Waterside Campus.
Understanding the Northampton finances has always been hard. At some meetings I attended, staff explained they were in profit but at others the Vice-Chancellor would pack the event with administrators tasked to demonstrate unacceptable losses. Like tanneries with many raw materials and end products, university finances can be complex, but they need not be incomprehensible, except by choice.
The new building is large and well-appointed, yet it now appears that costs for the new ICLT setup left too little headroom for problems ahead, the opposite of what outsiders expected. And the number of students that can be safely supervised in the tannery appears to have remained as limited as it was in the old premises.
Strange administrative changes in the courses earlier in the decade, as well as the peripatetic teaching required while the old department closed and the final location was decided and built, have affected both student numbers and industry sentiment. There was clearly a lot of rebuilding and targeting to be done, despite herculean efforts by staff to maintain some semblance of a student experience.
Now there is another new Vice-Chancellor and all those with an interest in the leather provision at Northampton University have now been advised that, while leather had been tolerated and subsidised in the past because of its history, there will now be “a period of internal consultation to determine the future of leather education and research against a backdrop of a fall in student demand, economic downturn and rising energy prices”.
While, presumably, existing courses will have to run out over the next two years (not a very comfortable experience for the students involved), it looks likely that the tannery will disappear with the leather provision reduced to a lab.
It is curious that this should happen so soon after the new building was opened. We could not predict Russia starting a war and deliberately creating food and fuel inflation across the world, but all the other facts were apparent for many years. Science courses are expensive to run and a teaching tannery more so unless tightly limited or additional specific financial support is worked out in advance.
With a desperate need for apprenticeships, what is the role of a three-year leather degree course in 2023 with costly fees and living expenses? Everyone who graduates finds useful employment, but is that enough to justify a leather only undergraduate degree?
Fashion and footwear require thorough material knowledge
In Northampton, tight links to fashion have always been considered important but only recently formalised into one unit. Who better to give fashion and design students the comprehensive knowledge of materials required for today’s environmental and biodiversity risks? This is the 2020s; you cannot teach fashion and footwear without thorough material knowledge.
The furore over the Higg Index has demonstrated that the enthusiasm of fashion brands and others for cheap plastics was ill founded. It has created huge planetary cost from fossil fuel usage to microparticles overloading the seas. The future now lies with the natural materials that Higg condemned with inaccurate science, and with the biomaterials (and hybrids) that should work with leather to push plastics out.
Northampton has the skills to work in these adjacent areas and become unique in the world in being able to teach and research the full range of exciting materials that work for vegans as well as omnivores without creating planetary damage.
Collagen science, non-woven skills and knowledge of biophilic materials all point towards wider courses with greater appeal and relevance when material science is advancing and getting to grips with the fundamental science behind the true impact of everything we do. Many senior Northampton graduates work in the biomaterials and hybrid fields, while most of the top tanneries are involved in making them independently or via joint ventures and almost all the leather chemical companies are taking part as well.
To follow this more pertinent route while throwing out the equipment which the new materials need for development and testing would be tragic. Instead, ways should be found to keep an affordable practical tanning set up and build a course for Northampton to have the world leading fashion and materials provision for teaching and learning. We hope for good decisions.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
Publication and Copyright of “Redwood Comment” remains with the publishers of International Leather Maker. The articles cannot be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the publisher.