Doing things “at pace” has become a phrase used in politics this year to the point of boredom. Often, it’s trying to explain why a government is moving very slowly. But, for the British leather industry, the misery has indeed come at pace, first with the loss of tanner Pittards in the summer when a planned refinancing suddenly went wrong and precipitated the company into administration.
Now, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Northampton, Professor Anne Marie Kilday, announced the outcome of an ongoing consultation about the viability of leather education and research on December 11. Students are in short supply, and she does not like the business environment.
Her letter was effectively a brief announcement, saying “the decision has been made to close the subject area”. It was not a surprise as, over the years, the structure had been first destabilised and then never allowed to recover.
Back in the mid-1960s, a year after proudly battling a difficult interview in a foreign land, I turned up at the University of Leeds to start a four-year undergraduate course. I discovered I was the only student. With Food Science already introduced alongside, leather education struggled along until it was consolidated into the National Leathersellers’ Centre in Northampton in 1976, along with Leathersellers’ College from Bermondsey in London.
The Institute of Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT) in Northampton is apparently down to only six new students now and the current financial climate and the high cost of running scientific and technical courses have brought the final curtain down. Over the past decade, one feature of the wider leather industry has been a big increase in collaboration and cooperation. That collaboration has been sorely lacking with the University of Northampton and I believe that low student numbers has more to do with a level mismanagement than with Brexit or any new industry structure.
The decision this week ends the high level of leather teaching, which began at Leeds in 1891 and London in 1909. After the move to Northampton, it was renamed the British School of Leather Technology in 1991 and, in 1999, Nene College was designated as University College Northampton, now the University of Northampton.
Collaboration has been the watchword throughout. Big donors such as the livery companies, the Skinners’ and Leathersellers’ in particular, helped with initial capital while industry bodies, companies and individuals created the endowments for running costs. Professor Procter personally donated his retirement gifts to build a research laboratory and the University and colleagues funded the staffing and expenses.
However, the last decade saw dramatic change and deterioration. One moment, we were told that leather was making a solid surplus and that leather’s move to the new campus was already fully funded, along with homes for the Museum of Leathercraft and the Leather Conservation Centre. But that soon reversed without warning, to be followed by various compromises and temporary solutions. Finally, the current state of the ICLT arrived out of the blue.
Although I have been closely involved with the university since 2003, as far as I know, there was little or no discussion about this sudden process of resurrection. We were surprised to see such a large setup, with lots of space and equipment and courses continuing unchanged. Neither seemed very wise, but we were left to hope and delighted with the confidence, including the move to combine fashion, footwear and leather last year.
Meanwhile, the Museum of Leathercraft was forced into long term storage and the Leather Conservation Centre only survived because the previous and current chairmen have fought for it so tenaciously. In fact, the Conservation Centre looks like it may be the sole survivor and I’m proud to still be involved in the great work it does.
The university and the town of Northampton sought and were given status as a global leader in leather teaching and research. The ICLT has great staff and facilities and will teach its current students until the summer of 2025, but will not accept new students, “with the implementation of a Student Protection Plan to ensure those already enrolled can complete their studies, and the University is in discussion with those whose job roles will be affected”.
We wish them well, but it is time to move on. We need to paint on a totally new canvas. Leather needs teaching and learning, and research has to be stepped up rather than reduced. Around the world, there are other great leather colleges which must now step up and fill the gap. Even in Europe, after the loss of both Reutlingen and Northampton, we have good courses in France, Spain and many fine institutions such as FILK filling important roles.
An expensive three-year degree in leather in England was always going to struggle and we should note that, amid all the gloom, Scottish Leather Group has established one of the most successful apprenticeship schemes in the UK alongside opening a new state of the art tannery outside Glasgow. Historically, it was from this important group that tanneries picked the best for further study, using City and Guilds or day-release courses.
There are plenty of other institutions in the UK and around the world that recognise the enormous potential and future of leather and other natural materials, along with the best biomaterials. Let the industry and all its stakeholders get together and grasp this opportunity for new relationships in research and teaching.
This is an area of growth, not decline, an area of opportunity not of misery. Objectively examined, leather is a top material for sustainability. It is unique in its ability to combine beauty, comfort and practicality, and is thus able to connect with consumers in complex ways. It has demonstrated over millennia the capacity to keep re-defining itself. It is time to move on to new, forward-thinking research and education.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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