Campus close-up: Bangor University

Welsh institution helps keep the maritime economy afloat as applications remain buoyant

August 7, 2014

Source: Alamy

Fin ideals: Seacams aims to aid local businesses, from commercial wave generators to whale-watching tour operators

In the mudflats on the west bank of the Menai Strait, the waterway that separates Anglesey from mainland Wales, sits a picturesque wooded islet that is home to a handful of unremarkable looking semi-detached houses.

What is not obvious from the outside is that one of these homes is a base for a major project to boost the maritime economy of Wales.

The Sustainable Expansion of the Applied Coastal and Marine Sectors project (Seacams for short) is a collaboration between Bangor, Aberystwyth and Swansea universities that uses academic expertise to help businesses connected with the sea.

At the moment, it is working with half a dozen companies to install the UK’s first commercial wave power generators to the north west of Anglesey, explained Lewis LeVay, director of Bangor’s Centre for Applied Marine Sciences.

The university understands how the tides flow, and so can offer advice on where best to place the generators, while the firms involved provide the technology.

Seacams was not set up exclusively to advance projects of this magnitude, added Dr LeVay. It could, for example, find information on whale populations off the Welsh coast for an entrepreneur trying to find the best place to run whale-watching boat trips.

Funded by the European Union and the universities themselves, the project has undertaken 120 research and development initiatives over the past five years.

Seacams’ European money comes from the EU’s Regional Development Fund, reserved for areas of Europe with low levels of per capita gross domestic product.

To put west Wales’ economic predicament in context, when this EU money – now called structural funding – was first distributed in 1994, it focused on areas such as the former East Germany and most of Spain.

In 2000 it began to prioritise west Wales and Cornwall, and those regions have required assistance ever since. In contrast, in the latest round of funding (2014-20), eastern Germany and all but one of Spain’s regions were no longer considered priorities.

Seacams is just one of the projects that Bangor hopes can help the local economy. David Shepherd, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise, explained that the university is currently running a knowledge exchange programme so PhD students can work with local businesses.

But John Thornton, head of Bangor’s business school, which specialises in accounting, banking and finance, was less sanguine about his department’s economic impact on the region.

“I’m not going to kid you and say we’re hugely involved in the local economy; hardly any university is,” he said. “We employ academics. They don’t know anything about day-to-day business management.”

As for embedding PhD students in local businesses, he said the “jury is still out” on whether this is a good idea. “Some [companies] want them, some don’t,” he added.

Still, arguably the biggest immediate economic impact Bangor has on the region is in drawing students from elsewhere into the city. More than half its students are from England, said vice-chancellor John Hughes. In 2012-13 it had more than 1,800 international students, in a city with a population of just over 16,000.

“We don’t have a university within 60 miles of us. But yet we still attract the vast bulk of our students from outside the region,” Professor Hughes pointed out.

Bangor’s relative remoteness is an attraction for students who do not want to live in a big city, he added. “They can go mountaineering, canoeing, the rest of it.”

Applications to the university were up last year, although, along with the rest of the sector, they were down in 2012.

Several new university buildings are being constructed, including the Pontio Centre, which will house arts events, space for businesses and a new student union when it opens in September. A new 600-bed student village is also being constructed by the university, while private firms are also building new student accommodation.

“What this does show is there’s a fair amount of confidence in Bangor,” Professor Hughes said. “We’ve continued to attract students; applications have stayed very buoyant.”

Much of the funding for these new capital projects has come from the EU’s structural funds, and a £45 million loan from the European Investment Bank, he explained. Far from Brussels, the EU’s largesse is having an impact.

In numbers

600 beds in the new student village being constructed by the university

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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