Tony Tysome and Harriet Swain go in search of the Midlands, a region that is busy bridging an east-west divide, increasing participation rates and developing links
When Maxwell Irvine arrived at Birmingham University 18 months ago to take up his post as vice-chancellor he noticed something was missing, writes Tony Tysome.
At that time, he remembers, "there was no evidence of any regional collaboration" between institutions that might be considered the university's higher education neighbours. It was as if the West Midlands, "a more artificial region than others", had no sense of identity as far as higher education was concerned. The East Midlands and its institutions seemed even further removed.
That is beginning to change thanks to the efforts of higher education leaders across central England, spurred by the government's efforts to give regional issues higher priority with the creation of regional development agencies.
Vice-chancellors from universities in the West Midlands now meet several times a year. They have nominated Coventry University to act as liaison to the West Midlands government office and the regional development agency. They have agreed to put forward Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, as their representative on the RDA. And they have formed Midland Metropolitan Area Network, a high bandwidth interconnection to SuperJanet that could lead to joint teaching on joint courses between regional institutions. In the East Midlands rivalries seem to have been set aside, allowing more regular meetings between vice-chancellors, who are considering nominating David Wallace, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, their RDA representative.
Such moves have helped make regional cooperation seem more possible and positive than ever. But progress is hampered by an identity crisis. Most institutional leaders in the Midlands feel that the east-west divide is logical and unavoidable, but they disagree on the reasons. Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham, takes a provocative view. "In terms of recruitment, the west is a large conurbation, with Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell and Wolverhampton, four million people and an industrial base with lots of small manufacturing companies; in comparison, the east is a kind of desert."
Unsurprisingly, most East Midlands institutions reject this explanation. Stephen Brown, pro vice-chancellor at Nottingham University, argues that the east is carving out a distinctive "street cred". Professor Wallace says: "If you take the Derby-Nottingham-Leicester triangle, it is quite built up, with high-tech industries developing and a lot of spin-off companies."
Whatever the reasons, Ray Cowell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, believes that the split is wrong and that for higher education, the Midlands should be seen and be run as one region. "We see ourselves as benefiting from our position in middle England. Sub-regions seem absurdly parochial and petty," he says.
This view is reinforced by the physical presence of the Open University. Sir John Daniel, OU vice-chancellor, says: "The role of the OU's regional centres as interfaces between the university and local political, educational and administrative initiatives will become more important, particularly as the activities and collaborative structures of regional groupings of universities grow."
Some vice-chancellors, however, are keen to champion sub-regionalism. Roger Waterhouse, vice-chancellor of Derby University, sees his principal region as Derbyshire county. This outlook has influenced how Derby has developed partnerships with colleges. Professor Waterhouse thinks it desirable for the East Midlands institutions to share objectives, but he fears that the diversity of missions will intrude. "East Midlands universities seem particularly far apart. They have some very different agendas and find it hard to agree on a common purpose. I cannot see any commonality emerging without some changes at the top."
Helen Hurman, who is helping coordinate Loughborough University's external relations with local business and industry, says the East Midlands is not generally regarded as a fully fledged region. "There are a lot of universities and a lot of competition among them. They respond to the fact that the counties and even the cities think themselves to be sub-regions."
Michael Harrison, vice-chancellor of Wolverhampton University, believes it is essential for institutions and the RDA to see that the west of the West Midlands, the Black Country, is unique. Wolverhampton's regional activities involve the university with four metropolitan borough councils and different training and enterprise councils and chambers of commerce. "It is a complicated micro-problem of serving different communities and political formations. I would welcome a sub-regional focus," Professor Harrison says.
According to Martin Binks, enterprise manager for Nottingham University, there are practical reasons for dividing higher education activity in the Midlands into sub-regions. It may make it easier to attract European money, he suggests. "If you look at Europe, the regions are all about the same size, with populations of about five million. The whole of the Midlands is far too big to fit that criterion."
The distribution of institutions, with several rubbing shoulders in the same local patch, encourages a sub-regional approach. It also means that more collaboration is likely. Birmingham and Aston universities are encouraging academic staff to build formal links between their institutions, a move that could lead to shared modules, credit transfer and collaborative research. The universities have found that they have complementary provision, such as Birmingham's school of medicine and Aston's pharmacy department, which makes it possible for them to build what Professor Irvine calls "a broad band of connectivity".
Nevertheless, there is some fierce competition, particularly in medical fields. Two years ago, Coventry won a tender to run nursing and midwifery courses, beating bids from the University of Central England and Warwick. Now Warwick aims to establish a medical school jointly with Leicester University, which already has one. The plan could threaten Birmingham University's position as the medical leader in the West Midlands.