Learning passports and a new airport will help Doncaster launch its plans for a university, says Claire Sanders.
Anyone who doubts the value of a university to its local area should visit Doncaster. The city has no university and a poor educational record that threatens to jeopardise its economic revival. It has seen the creation of 7,000 jobs in the past 18 months and £180 million of investment in the past year alone, yet the local population does not have the skills to take advantage of the new opportunities. For Martin Walker, Doncaster's executive mayor, education is key to its survival. "We have high unemployment but are importing workers," he said.
Mr Walker has real power. "People are often shocked by what I can do," he said. "But with power comes responsibility, and I have to deliver on education."
Sitting in Doncaster's Mansion House, Mr Walker is accompanied by George Holmes, principal and chief executive of Doncaster College. A key figure in the merger of the University of North London and London Guildhall University and the establishment of a campus in Lincoln, he has a history of access-led universities - experience that is sorely needed.
With 17 per cent of its 18-year-olds going into higher education, compared with the national average of more than 42 per cent and an average for South Yorkshire of 26 per cent, Doncaster has one of the lowest participation rates in the country. It is, however, the largest metropolitan borough, with a population of 300,000.
The decline of the mining industry from 19 working pits 20 years ago to two now, and the loss of other heavy industries have taken their toll. "For many people around here, higher and further education is something that other people do. The isolation of some of these villages is acute, and divisions between families and communities stemming from the miners' strike run deep," Dr Holmes said. "We have to change a whole culture."
This change will be spearheaded by the Doncaster Education City Project.
This is a collaboration between Doncaster College, the Learning and Skills Council, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council and the Regional Development Agency, and its strategic plan describes it as "unique" in the UK. It is certainly ambitious.
If all goes to plan, Doncaster College should become Doncaster University by 2010 and participation rates should have improved to match at least the South Yorkshire average. Crucially, the plan will see all Doncaster children enrolled at university aged 14, possibly aged 11. "They will be given a DEC passport," Dr Holmes explained. "Local children will formally be enrolled in the university at that stage and, provided they get the right qualifications, they will have a place at university."
He is keen to avoid a situation where carefully nurtured bright local children find themselves with the qualifications to go to their local university but without a guaranteed place. "Many of these students will not want, or will not be able to afford, to travel outside of Doncaster," he said.
The project also envisages a unified curriculum. "On my first day at university, our lecturer asked us who had A-level economics," Dr Holmes recalled. "Half of us raised our hands, only to be told that we could forget all that we had learnt as university economics was different. Well, we are not having any of that."
Doncaster students' undergraduate curriculum will build directly on their previous learning, which is where the University of Hull comes in. Last month, Hull was unveiled as Doncaster College's new partner to help it achieve university status by 2010. Until then, students enrolling at Doncaster will be awarded a Hull degree. About 3,200 of Doncaster's students are enrolled on higher education courses through accreditation arrangements with universities such as Hull, Leeds, Sheffield Hallam and the Open University. By 2010 there should be 5,000 students.
The new university will focus on subjects related to employment needs in the area, ranging from health and social work, through real estate management and business activities to construction and manufacturing.
Alongside this is planned the UK's most ambitious mentoring programme, funded by almost £200,000 a year for three years by the LSC. From September, 1,000 sixth-formers will be mentored by students from five local universities and colleges. According to Dr Holmes, "the evidence is that effective mentoring raises grades and aspirations. Once a school pupil has had the chance to meet a local student, then they realise that they are not an alien species."
To accommodate the new students, Doncaster College will move to a city centre site on the Waterfront marina.
"I've worked in universities where access has permeated the curriculum and the ethos - but not the buildings," Dr Holmes said. "Here we have the chance to create an environment that is welcoming to everyone. It will have a games area and a cafeteria that everyone can use, and it will be situated next to a busy shopping area. It will be as natural for local people to enter the university as it is for them to go into Debenhams."
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is represented on the steering group for the project. "We are excited about the curricula developments planned at Doncaster. They are student-centred, which is essential in an area with low participation," a spokesman said.
The project has so far secured about £55 million of its target £230 million. Already the impact of the plan has been felt locally, with house prices on the Waterfront doubling.
"This is a developing area," the mayor said. "The decision to place the new Finningley Airport near Doncaster is crucial for economic regeneration - we must be the one area in the country delighted to have a new airport. We need a university to match these developments."