County responds to higher calling

February 16, 2007

While a Cumbrian partnership prospers, a Scottish venture seems to have run its course. Tony Tysome and Olga Wojtas report.

Cumbria University's vice-chancellor-to-be Chris Carr apologises for the whistlestop tour of the county that we are about to take.

"Whenever I try to describe higher education in Cumbria to a visitor, we always end up driving around for miles," he said.

The 676,000 hectares of land that Cumbria occupies make it the second largest county in England, but it is home to the second smallest population.

Professor Carr argued that the transport difficulties alone were enough to justify the decision not to build the new Cumbria University, which is officially launched in August, on a single greenfield site. Add to that the very low higher-education participation rates in certain areas (16 per cent in Barrow-in-Furness and parts of Carlisle), and it becomes clear that one big campus is not going to address the county's educational needs.

That is why, while most new universities are busy closing campuses and consolidating their estate, Cumbria will move in the opposite direction to resurrect the multisite "distributed" model of higher education.

Its 17,000 students and 1,500 staff will be spread across the Carlisle, Lancaster and Ambleside sites of what is currently St Martin's College of Higher Education, the Penrith and Carlisle campuses of the University of Central Lancashire, and the Cumbria Institute of the Arts in Carlisle.

A small teacher-training outpost in Tower Hamlets, London, would also be maintained, and four Cumbrian further-education colleges play a part in the university's higher-education network.

Professor Carr is under no illusions that pulling all this together into a coherent and unified institution is not going to be a significant challenge.

"There is a potential for staff to feel a sense of isolation when you have a department based on two campuses 70 miles apart. That is why we must put heads of departments under pressure to get around their departments," he said.

"There is no doubt that it is going to be hard to work in a distributed way. But we have no option, because of the nature of the county."

A key part of the challenge is going to be keeping staff happy as managers put the finishing touches to the mergers and acquisitions that will bring Cumbria into being.

A top priority has been an effort to reassure staff about their jobs. With plans to increase student numbers by more than 40 per cent in the first ten years only a small number of voluntary redundancies are expected.

Restructuring is planned in two years, but even that should not lead to many job losses, Professor Carr insisted.

"We have been clear right from the beginning that there will be no compulsory redundancies at the point of merger. We want and need the support of staff for this new university. We are not going to get that if they feel they might lose their jobs," he said.

Equally sensitive have been questions about the Church of England's role in the new institution. Its involvement with St Martin's, by far the largest player in the merger, resulted in it securing seven of 21 seats on the new university's governing body.

Staff in the resolutely secular Cumbria Institute of the Arts have raised concerns about how this might impact on the university's curriculum and culture.

One Cumbria Institute of the Arts academic, who did not wish to be named, told The Times Higher : "We did not sign up to Christian values when we joined the art college. Many of us feel we have been dragged into a faith-based institution without our consent."

Professor Carr, currently principal of St Martin's, admitted his Anglican faith was part of his job description, but he said this would not be a requirement for future Cumbria vice-chancellors. "No one should feel uncomfortable in the new institution," he said.

There are also fears among some staff that the new university will abandon disciplines closely related to the cultural heritage of Cumbria, including the works of Wordsworth and Ruskin, and important archaeological sites such as Hadrian's Wall.

Historian David Wilson said: "Some of us feel strongly that Cumbria's heritage should be represented in the new university, and that it should not concentrate solely on vocational business-related courses."

Professor Carr confirmed that one of the hallmarks of the new institution would be programmes that have a "significant applied vocational element".

But he said that he was also keen to bolster subjects that he felt were "part of the DNA of Cumbria". These include not only arts, humanities and social sciences, but also land-based studies, outdoor studies, forestry and game-keeping, currently offered at Uclan's Penrith campus.

We end our tour in Carlisle, where six acres of buildings acquired by St Martin's in 1998 will become the headquarters of the new university.

Professor Carr reflected on how an inspirational report from Sir Martin Harris in 2005 began a journey from what could have been St Martin's University to what will be Cumbria University.

He said: "We could have become a university in our own right. But Sir Martin put down a challenge to create a new institution that will serve the county. I think we have risen to that pretty satisfactorily."

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

COUNTDOWN TO A NEW UNIVERSITY

  • September 2005: report from Sir Martin Harris recommends creation of a Cumbria University through merger of St Martin's College and Cumbria Institute of the Arts
  • December: governing bodies of both institutions agree in principle to act on report recommendations
  • February 2006: shadow board, U4C (University for Cumbria), set up to push ahead with the plan
  • May: Uclan announces plans to transfer its Cumbrian campuses to the new university
  • July: St Martin's College gains taught degree-awarding powers
  • December: Privy Council gives the green light for Cumbria University to be created
  • February 2007: governing bodies of St Martin's and CIA formally sign merger agreement
  • August: will see theformal launch of Cumbria University.

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