Cumbrian university in need of roadmap

May 16, 2003

Former funding chief Sir Brian Fender will this week outline his vision for a University of Cumbria in a bid to halt the economic decline of Britain's second largest county.

Sir Brian's report highlights weaknesses in the Cumbrian rural economy that, combined with poor higher education progression rates and a formidable topography, require "innovative solutions".

The report rules out a new campus for the county's 500,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in small scattered communities with fewer than 200 people and suffer from transport and communications disadvantages, including patchy or non-existent mobile telephone networks and almost 4,000km of unclassified roads.

Instead, courses will be jointly delivered by a consortium of institutions closest to the area in a bid to solve what the report identifies as gaps in provision in science, engineering, medicine and languages. An additional 630 full-time and 320 part-time undergraduate places are described as "realistic targets" alongside more than 400 postgraduate places.

The report says that although there has been considerable progress in the region over recent years, the structure for the delivery of higher education - and the level of investment - is not yet sufficient to give confidence that the development can grow to the levels required.

"The small scale of the present campuses is a barrier to expansion because each needs to grow to get closer to an optimal size for financial stability and a reasonable choice of programmes."

The newly formed strategic alliance between the University of Central Lancashire and the Cumbria Institute of the Arts is welcomed but described as limited.

"There are other institutions able and willing to contribute to higher education in Cumbria, and Cumbria needs to draw on the maximum range of talent to broaden and deepen the curriculum offered," the report says.

"There is a need to build an identity for the 21st-century vision of a network of deeply collaborating campuses that has all the key attributes of a single campus university but brings together the strengths of a number of universities," the report says.

The need to encourage sharing of operations is also stressed.

Estates will require investment to cope with expansion, according to the report, and the e-learning infrastructure must be improved.

"Within the strong sense of community in Cumbria there is an urgent need to raise aspirations and to establish strong regeneration," the report says.

"The building blocks for collaboration are in place."

Sir Brian recommends that a core group of institutions should take over planning for the "University of Cumbria", principally Cumbria Institute of the Arts, St Martin's College Lancaster and the universities of Central Lancashire, Lancaster and Northumbria.

These institutions will need to plan an overall approach to higher education in the county and come up with a three-year business plan and a ten-year strategic horizon with targets for growth.

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