An Essex duo hopes to woo local students. Pat Leon checks out the appeal of the county's bright idea.
Are 32 varieties of degree course and a seaside location enough to tempt Essex men and women to bathe in the fount of knowledge in Southend? Essex University thinks so. It has partnered the town's main further education college since 1999 in branding vocationally oriented degrees.
An odd coupling, you might say, at opposite ends of the county and of the cultural spectrum. But the relationship is proving fruitful. The research-based university is gaining a foothold in the thriving Thames Gateway economy, and the college is receiving recognition in terms of degree provision.
A bigger cultural contrast, however, is in teaching. South East Essex College has adopted as radical an approach to the teaching-learning relationship as Essex University did to social and intellectual relations in the 1960s.
Russell Pearson, director of higher education, says: "You won't see many lecture theatres or conventional classrooms. You won't see whiteboards or teachers stood in front of groups. You will see clusters of students and staff working together."
The early layout of Essex University campus in Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, encouraged the free mixing of staff and students, with no staff common rooms or student union bar. The Southend college's open-plan interiors encourage similar non-hierarchical relations but also the mixing of students of differing academic levels in the same work space. Essex University vice-chancellor Ivor Crewe says the college has been imaginative. "I've been very impressed by the layout of teaching rooms and workstations. The rooms are designed so that teachers can attend to individual needs and small groups."
Erica Williamson, head of art, says: "The architecture lends itself to teamwork. It also helps to break down the barrier between further and higher education so that students who may never have considered doing a degree can see that it is possible."
Pearson says: "South Essex has an interesting culture. There is little tradition of participation in higher education. Many young people go straight from school into the City post-A level. Part of the reason for launching degrees with Essex is to raise aspirations and offer opportunities on the doorstep. Eighty-five per cent of our students are home based."
With more than 12,000 students, the college is one of the most successful in the country. The degree courses build on its strengths in media and performing arts, technology, business and management, art and design, the service sector, and social and health studies.
To prospective undergraduates, the college's Carnarvon Road site might look like a dull 1960s downtown office block. Inside, it is a revelation: bright, airy and colour coordinated in red, white and blue. They might think they have walked into British Airways, but every service a student wants - courses, accommodation, recruitment, guidance, marketing and a bank of computers that allow students to access timetables - is near reception and not within a warren of corridors.
The layout is linked to the college's organisational ethos: to put students learning needs first. When Tony Pitcher took over as principal nine years ago, he decided a big shake-up was needed. "We saw that putting people into private rooms behind closed doors gave the idea that they were not accountable. We wanted more teamwork. Coming to work or study is a social experience."
Hence the college's glasnost approach to everything from interior design to the college intranet. Crewe says: "The college has been very forward-thinking in its use of IT... universities are now doing it too, but the colleges got there before and were putting coursework and assessment material on the intranet."
David Howe, quality director, says: "The openness of our intranet means students and lecturers can see the approaches to learning and the associated resources and materials across the institution. It breaks the teacher-student hierarchy and is leading to materials and ideas being used across courses."
All lecturers are given a wireless laptop so they can sit among any class of students and access data anywhere. As Pitcher, nowadays titled chief executive, says: "If you want a work ethic, then you have got to provide an internal architecture to develop that ethic.
"There were abuses. I remember seeing technicians reading tabloid newspapers waiting for something to happen. Now they feel their work is valued rather than wondering what their job was for."
Now called learning advisers, they play an important role in helping students. This frees time for tutors and means students can work on their projects in their own time at their own speed.
Lucy Warner, head of media, says: "The learning centres are open from 8am to 9pm. Students will book laboratory or studio time. Sometimes I can't tell whether students are in classes or just dropping in."
The system prepares students for employment, she says. "They have to develop practical skills and learn about time management."
So does Essex University think its Southend liaison is a sea change? Crewe says: "Until about the early to mid-1990s, Essex didn't think of itself as having a local or regional mission. It has changed, although we are still very international. We recognise that we need to serve the educational needs of Essex county."