Challenge of the novel

October 18, 1996

THES reporters survey today's higher education sector to spot tomorrow's growing points.

Britain's higher education system has expanded beyond all recognition in recent years, yet there are still some regions which remain academic backwaters, bereft of their own university. Local communities have suddenly woken up to the knock-on effects of higher education institutions, Business leaders especially have been impressed by the finding that a university can mean a Pounds 50 million boost to the local economy. Several "university projects" have been established.

Each is different, reflecting local differences, yet all have one thing in common: the desire to tap the potential of information technology. The one national project - Labour's "University for Industry" - would, according to the party blurb, do for people in the workplace what the Open University has done for people at home. Yet the plan to link employers to some information superhighway remains a distant prospect, and Labour has been reticent about the project over the last year.

A more realistic proposition is the "televersity" model being developed by a partnership between British Telecom and Suffolk University College - an accredited college of the University of East Anglia since June. Bringing in Pounds 40 million a year and catering for 15,000 students by 2010, it will link 15 local learning centres packed with such advanced equipment as retractable vision consoles, portable visual panels, video visors, and space-style "docks" instead of old-fashioned "desks".

Another scheme is for a hi-tech Lakelands University, although its foundation date is still possibly 25 years off. This, and Suffolk's project, will be encouraged by the progress of the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland - dubbed the world's first "online" university - which promises to inject an annual Pounds 70 million into the local economy and will unite 11 existing further education colleges and research institutes.

The UHI has a chief executive and Pounds 33.4 million of Millennium Commission funding, and although the project team is coy about target dates for achieving university status, it expects the Millennium money to trigger total investment of Pounds 100 million over the next five years. Alongside these "space age" projects, there is a tier of more traditional down-to-earth ideas. These suggest that the expansion of the higher education sector will not be easy.

Lincoln University campus, which opened last week and hopes to have 5,000 students by the turn of the century, has stumbled through financial setbacks. Nottingham Trent University, its first backer, was forced to pull out last year after failing to come up with the necessary funded students.

Now linked with Humberside University, it opened as planned only after a rescue package saved it from financial disaster.

With similar problems, University College Stockton was relaunched earlier this year as the University of Durham in Stockton after financial pressures forced out the other partner, the University of Teesside. Plans to have 1,000 students before the end of the decade have been shelved, and the current figure is just 630.

Ulster University's radical plan for a "peace line" campus in west Belfast has been mothballed, although the financial complications are political rather than practical since the project enjoys widespread local and international support.

Two other "university college" type projects are now searching for funding. One is a Peterborough University campus. The local TEC has estimated that some 12,000 students could attend, and Loughborough University is to develop the idea. The other, Exeter University's Cornwall University, is touting for Pounds 70 million of private sector support and bidding for funding council support for 1,500 students.

There is also an attempt to build the Crichton University of Southern Scotland, and both Glasgow and Paisley universities have laid plans for revitalising this rundown area.

A different model is the London Docklands-based Royals University College, a joint effort of three universities: University of East London, Queen Mary and Westfield College, and London Guildhall University. Yet the Pounds 40 million project, with the first 3,000-student phase due for completion in 1999, shares with the other new university schemes at least one thing: it is geared to boosting the local economy to the tune of Pounds 200 million over the next 20 years.

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