A poor school report doesn't mean an endless life of drudgery, as initiatives to integrate universities with local communities show. David Blackman and Mandy Garner explain.
Craig Endean didn't think much of education. At 13, his mum and dad split up and it hit him hard. His school was rated one of the worst in the UK and he wasn't keen on studying anyway. He left at 16 with an F, a U, a DD, a G and an E in his GCSEs and ended up taking dead-end jobs, doing market research and door-to-door sales.
After two years, he woke up one morning and decided his life needed to change. "It was a snap decision," he says. "I thought, unless I make a decision, I will spend the rest of my life doing this." He applied to join the Army but was put off by the recruiting sergeant, who objected to his earring. So he went to South East Essex College in Southend in the hope of becoming a fireman. Neither his mother nor his lecturer thought he would stay the distance. But not only did he do the public service course, he also did a follow-up course in business and progressed to a degree in marketing at the same college.
Now, aged 24, he is a marketing executive in local firm IBS Connect. "I wanted to create my own future," he says, "rather than rely on other people." None of his friends or family has gone into higher education. In fact, he knows of only one other person from his area who has a degree. And he wouldn't have done a degree himself had it not been for the fact that South East Essex College runs further and higher education courses, linked to Essex University, on the same campus. "Doing a degree seems an unrealistic dream when you have the GCSE results I had and have little confidence," he says. "But if you take one step at a time, you can get there."
Endean is just the kind of person the Government hopes to target as part of its Thames Gateway Strategy to be published later this month. It is estimated that 19 per cent of Gateway residents have no qualifications compared with the England and Wales average of 16 per cent. And just 15 per cent have a degree compared with 20 per cent across the country. But in some pockets the problem is worse. In the Essex boroughs of Castle Point and Thurrock, the number of residents qualified to degree level is less than half the average for England and Wales as a whole.
Learning and Skills Council research shows that, with redevelopment, well over a third of the jobs likely to be created in the area will require a degree. The fear is that unless educational levels improve, the housing and jobs created as a result of the Gateway's regeneration will go to better educated outsiders. The Department for Communities and Local Government is providing funds for several projects aiming to bring further and higher education closer together to raise educational attainment. They include a "multiversity" in Chatham, where Greenwich University will be joined by outposts of Kent University and Mid-Kent College of Further and Higher Education, and the campus at Southend, where the South East Essex College and Essex University share space.
Also being developed is a "polyversity" in Thurrock - a further and higher education hybrid that incorporates a series of centres for each of the area's growth employment sectors, such as logistics and transport, offering vocational training in a university-style environment. Each polyversity will offer fast-track two-year degrees and foundation degrees. Education officials deny that this, in essence, means the return of the polytechnic.
"It's about looking at different models of provision," says Mary Spence, chief executive of the Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership.
Higher education is at the centre of many of new Labour's plans for economic regeneration. According to economic development experts, airports and universities are the two key drivers of successful local economies.
"If you look at the most successful places, they have high-quality educational institutions," says Bill Brisbane of the economic development consultancy Roger Tym and Partners. As a result, new universities are springing up around the country in a bid to spur the development of surrounding "knowledge economies". The University of Cornwall will celebrate its first anniversary this year. Next year, Cumbria University will open its doors to undergraduates for the first time, and the body charged with spearheading the regeneration of depressed east Lancashire wants one too. As building projects alone, universities represent substantial physical regeneration projects. They are also large institutions that spend lots of money in the local economy.
Peter Roberts of Leeds University's School of Earth and Environment says:
"In many cities, universities are the largest employer after the local authority. Universities deliver a national service but spend locally."
Leeds, he adds, spends more money in the local economy than any private organisation.
Bradford University is setting up a "student village" next to its inner-city campus. It will provide student accommodation, healthcare facilities open to students and non-students, a bookshop and a laundry.
Later phases of the scheme will provide business start-up space and live-work units targeted at graduates. The scheme also includes key-worker accommodation.
Geoff Layer, Bradford's pro vice-chancellor, says the accommodation is designed to bring academic staff, many of whom have traditionally lived in the surrounding countryside, into the centre, where they can more directly contribute to the city's economic and social life. He says the development is also designed to use the university to kickstart economic growth in the area, which is populated mostly by poor families of Asian origin. "We are talking about an area, the University Ward, that is one of the most deprived in the country."
Martin Coles, development director of Bradford's urban regeneration company, says the scheme is a key element in plans to revive the adjacent city centre. Some welcome the shift out of the ivory tower that such schemes involve.
Bryan Gray, North West Development Agency chair, says: "There has been a sense that universities are remote from the local communities." He has played a key role in establishing Cumbria University. Its curriculum will focus on serving the needs of local business, such as healthcare and tourism.
But Layer cautions against focusing only on local people and concerns. He points to Teesside University as an example of an institution set up with regeneration in mind that has not succeeded because it fails to attract people from outside the area.
John Ladd, director of the British Urban Regeneration Association, which is running a conference on universities in December, agrees: "You won't regenerate an area simply by having a university in every town. They have to be part of a regional plan to ensure you can offer facilities of a good enough standard to attract people."
But Nick Bailey, professor of urban regeneration at Westminster University, believes it is possible to achieve high academic standards and to respond to local needs. "You can strike a happy medium between the two," he says.
"You should look to the national and international reputation of the university, but you should always be aware of the needs of the locality."