Analysis: 'We want to set our own destiny'

October 5, 2001

Competition has forced ULH out of its Hull home. Alison Utley reports on its reincarnation and the gap left by its departure.

The launch on Monday of the University of Lincoln is the outcome of some fierce jostling for position in a new buyer's market in higher education that has forced many institutions to take a long hard look at their student appeal - or, in the case of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside, lack of it.

Following major repositioning, ULH is being re-branded and relocated from Hull to an expanding waterfront site in Lincoln, a city that has been waiting some 600 years to get its own university.

The crunch came because Hull city had too many overlapping university courses on offer to too few students - an unhappy situation that will strike a chord on numerous campuses around the country. University managers will be watching developments in Lincoln carefully over the coming months.

Vice-chancellor David Chiddick has had an eventful time since he took over at ULH a year ago. "The key to all this is that we wanted to set our own destiny, not just be thrust along by the gathering pace of change in the sector," he said.

In the escalating recruitment battle between ULH and Hull University, its neighbour institution, one was always going to lose out badly. Student numbers went into "freefall" and competition from Hull was proving to be too strong, Professor Chiddick said.

When recruitment dipped by almost a third, drastic measures were called for. Last summer, a wide review was undertaken that resulted in a new academic structure and range of courses.

Consolidating his institution in Lincoln, changing its name and abandoning plans for a £50 million campus development in Hull was a radical solution and one that has caused the city of Hull some angst, but Professor Chiddick is convinced the shift is right for the university.

He is buoyed by the news that this year recruitment has picked up substantially. "The move will sweep away all the confusion in one go," he said.

There is no doubt about the confusion. One of ULH's student focus groups asked youngsters to rate a group of universities on a scale from one to ten. ULH languished at the bottom and the University of Lincoln was ranked highly by students - even though it did not exist as such at that time.

"It feels natural to have the university here," Professor Chiddick said from his new Lincoln headquarters.

With its steep cobbled streets packed with artists' cooperatives, bookshops and wine bars, all presided over by the imposing cathedral, Lincoln already has the feel of a university town.

Having begun just five years ago with 300 students as an outpost of ULH at a former contaminated railway sidings called Brayford Wharf, the student population in Lincoln has since grown tenfold and is expected to rise to 5,000 or so within five years.

The final piece of the jigsaw was added last month. Fortuitously, De Montfort University has also been through its own repositioning strategy and is consolidating its provision on to two campuses. As a result, De Montfort agreed to transfer its schools of art and design and agriculture in prime Lincoln locations to Lincoln University for an undisclosed sum.

But the move from Hull has not been without pain. About 200 jobs are thought likely to disappear. Redundancy packages will be available to staff unable to relocate. Managers hope to avoid compulsory job losses, although relations with union bosses have become tense.

For students who enrolled at ULH, the new name and location feel a little strange. "I am going to graduate from a place that didn't even exist when I first came here," said Kate Williams, a second-year journalism student.

But she said students were supportive of the change because Hull was regarded as a bit of a "ghost campus". Fellow student James Elliot agreed:

"The university was disjointed, but from now on we won't be attached to a place we didn't know."

But where does all this leave Hull? The University of Lincoln will keep about 1,500 students in a new city centre location in Hull, where it can collaborate easily with Hull College. New foundation degrees are expected, and the academic portfolio will focus on art and design, social work, computing, business and technology.

Lincoln will invest £4 million in the new site as part of a five-year development plan. The former campus at Cottingham Road is being sold to Hull University.

Professor Chiddick said he believed the "unique collaboration" between the two universities would offer an example for other universities to follow.

"While there will be fewer students in Hull, even if we had done nothing there would still be a drop," he said. "There is a big push by the government for the universities to sort out this problem."

One of the pressing problems for the city will be the gap left in vocational provision once Lincoln decamps. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is taking a keen interest in Hull and is supporting both universities in their new strategic missions.

Regional Hefce consultant Roger Lewis said the full range of options must remain in the city and that the two universities were working closely with the funding council, together with a consortium of further education colleges, to ensure gaps were closed.

"This has to be a managed process, and it is opening up new kinds of dialogue that are often on new territory and therefore not always easy.

"But evolving shared provision in the region is the goal and that certainly now involves crossing sector boundaries. And it is vitally important that provision is flexible to make sure it is developed according to student demand which is not always easy to predict," he said.

Hull University has been cautious about its ability to fill the gap in vocational courses left by UHL's move. It is in the midst of overcoming its own hurdles since a financial deficit prompted a review of corporate goals that examined of every aspect of the university's academic and administrative structure.

New vice-chancellor David Drewry has set out a mission to become part of the elite top 20 group of institutions within the decade, by improving research ratings and expanding areas of growth such as business studies, computer science and sport science, of which a new department was opened last month.

In 2003, Hull will finally have its own medical school thanks to a joint venture with York University. The space vacated by ULH will come in handy. A biomedical cluster is expected to be housed there, possibly incorporating some 1,500 nursing students and other health-related programmes.

Student numbers have grown by 19 per cent during 2000-01, partly due to a merger with University College Scarborough last summer, but boosting research is a major priority.

Professor Drewry is confident of improvements to research ratings during the current research assessment exercise. University managers say they are more committed than ever to widening participation. The region has a poor record of pupils progressing to tertiary education - about 10 per cent.

Ekkehard Kopp, pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at Hull, said some 20 per cent of students were recruited from the region, a proportion that has trebled in the past ten years. With the removal of ULH, its numbers could grow even more. The difficulty, he said, was that Hull was not a heavily vocational institution and further education in the city was not geared to take large numbers of degree-level students.

"We can't suddenly start courses in subjects where we have no expertise," he said. "And we cannot drop our entry requirements."

One solution to fill the gaps was to devise more progression routes, he said. There was considerable scope for new foundation degrees, he said. Two foundation degrees will start this year with more likely to follow, although Professor Kopp stressed that it was unclear whether this would be sufficient in the longer term.

"It is regrettable that there will be fewer students in Hull," he said. But he said the changes to the higher education landscape in the city offered Hull a unique opportunity to provide courses to a wider group of people than ever before.

Factfile

Lincoln University: Undergraduates: 7,100 (Hull 3,000, Lincoln 4,100). Full-time postgraduates: 160, part-time: 1,040. Academic staff: 370. Overseas students: 7 per cent. Franchise students 1,450 in UK. Income £51.9 million (1999- 2000). Founded as Humberside University in1992, began as Hull School of Art in 1861.

Hull University: Undergraduates: 12,167. Postgraduates: 8,167. Total staff: 1,962. Overseas students: 12 per cent. Research income: £7.3 million (1999- 2000). Income: £78 million. Founded 19, gaining independence from University of London in 1954.

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