Groves of academe sprout on slag heaps

August 16, 1996

Building contractors are racing to complete the Dearne Valley College near Sheffield in time for the first students' arrival in September. But the water feature in front of the entrance to the college will remain empty for the foreseeable future thanks to Yorkshire Water's hosepipe ban. Classrooms, on the other hand, should be full to brimming.

With the collapse of the region's coal and steel economy, principal Don Davison is confident of meeting his first-year target of 500-plus students, many of whom will be unemployed and returning to education after a lengthy absence.

Regeneration of the depressed valley is top of an ambitious agenda advanced by a partnership of Sheffield University and three nearby further education colleges - Rockingham, Rotherham and Barnsley. The concept has grown out of the ashes of the University College of the Dearne Valley, shelved by Sheffield University when it emerged that student number capping would render the project unviable.

Not to be defeated, the Dearne Valley partnership ploughed on with the idea. As it is England's largest enterprise zone the region attracted one of the most comprehensive packages of financial assistance in the country, including Pounds 7.5 million from the City Challenge and the EU's economic development fund.

Qualifications will be offered through a credit accumulation and transfer system that links the four partners into a common framework. Basic skills to doctorates will be on offer in a bid to raise the ethos of learning in a region that has a post-16 staying-on rate of just 61 per cent. Mr Davison would like to see that improve to 80 per cent and is strengthening links with local schools to give young people a greater awareness of what higher education can offer.

Born and bred in the Dearne Valley, Mr Davison has already witnessed a transformation of sorts in the area. Former slag heaps have become golf courses and water sports centres. But such cosmetic remodelling has as made little impact on the coal and steel mind-set which Mr Davison says must be buried once and for all if true regeneration is to occur.

"For a university to recruit in such a close-knit enclosed area is a real challenge," Mr Davison said. "Many people here don't even want to travel ten miles for a job or training and we must take that cultural environment on board with us while at the same time somehow broadening horizons."

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