On the right route at Spaghetti Junction

May 3, 1996

Simon Midgley reports on moves for a community university in Birmingham. Britain's first American-style city community university offering learning for life to local people could be created by the proposed merger of the University of Central England with East Birmingham College.

While the Further Education Funding Council still has to be persuaded of the merits of the plan, the university and the college, a medium-sized further education college, are keen to merge their operations as soon as feasible.

The proposed new institution takes its inspiration from such models as the City University of New York, a 350,000-student community university, and the Chicago University system, which is linked to a number of local two and four-year community colleges.

The idea in Birmingham is that the new merged institution would initially serve the needs of the people of deprived east Birmingham but could in time and if joined by other colleges become a city-wide university. This could lead to a university with 100,000 student enrolments by the year 2000.

The new institution would open up access to a seamless web of basic, further and higher educational opportunities. The city would then have three university institutions - the University of Birmingham, an internationally renowned research institution, Aston University, a smaller, specialist university and the new expanded community university which would essentially operate as a local institution.

The logic of the plan is simple. The University of Central England, the former Birmingham Polytechnic, has its roots in vocational and community-based education. Its school of jewellery, the largest in Europe, already trains a spectrum of students from 16-year-olds on City and Guilds to postgraduates.

East Birmingham College on the other hand already teaches 500 first-year undergraduates engineering, business studies and fine art on behalf of the University of Central England before they transfer to the university in their second year.

Tony Henry, the principal of East Birmingham College, says: "There is no difference between their university students and our university students. There is already a breaking of the line."

Two of the college's overriding objectives are: that everybody who lives within a mile of its 20 access centres should be able to read and write; and that any schoolchild who wants to progress through the educational system - provided they attend school, hand in certain amounts of homework and achieve certain objectives - should be entitled to a university place by using the college as a bridge from school to university.

Although there has been some opposition to the plan from some quarters within the university, vice chancellor, council, academic board and students are keen. Culturally both institutions are similiar in being decentralised and committed to providing wide access to further and higher education.

The FEFC seems to be cautious about the plan because it has worries about piecemeal mergers of this kind and may prefer to wait to see if a joint funding mechanism is created by a merger of the FEFC with the HEFC.

There are also fears that such a large merged institution might destablise other colleges or indeed universities in the same city. Bill Stubbs, the FEFC's outgoing chief executive, has also talked about the dangers of "academic drift".

The colleges had been hoping to merge by January 1997 but the prospect of an imminent general election and a possible change of government now makes a quick decision on the proposal less likely.

Mr Henry is a fervent convert to the idea of seamless, basic, further and higher education. He says: "You can learn to read and write at your local university, equally you can learn to split the atom. They are both commendable things, I don't think one is better than the other really."

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