One of the country's most remote regions is to plug in to computer communications to make higher education accessible to all.
Cumbria County Council is setting up a steering group to make Workington MP Dale Campbell-Savours's vision of a multi-campus University of the Lakes spanning hundreds of miles a reality. It is investigating the possibility of linking the sites using the Internet, JANET (the joint academic network) and ultimately an electronic library.
Department of Education statistics for 1990/91 showed that only 33 per cent of Cumbria's school-leavers continued their studies, compared with a national average of 43 per cent. The isolation of many communities also poses problems for mature students but the geography of the area, with the main centres of population scattered around a national park containing more sheep than people, ruled out the possibility of concentrating higher education facilities at any one place.
Instead, Mr Campbell-Savours proposed establishing several specialist faculties, each building on areas of existing expertise. For example, a school of marine sciences based at Barrow-in-Furness could tap into existing maritime technologies, and developments already in progress at Westlakes Research Institute in industrial west Cumbria could pave the way for a school of energy and environmental studies. An administrative hub in the central Lake District could also be used for the teaching of ecology and sustainable development.
Such a model would enable the university to address the area's specific economic needs, while its rich literary heritage and the unique collection of manuscripts relating to the Romantic movement at the Wordsworth Institute in Grasmere could provide a focus for studying the liberal arts.
It could also incorporate local colleges specialising in business and management studies, art and design, and teacher training, although academic credibility would probably be gained only by initially working with existing universities.
The "virtual library" would link the faculties to each other and to the wider world, making manuscripts available to students irrespective of location, allowing their assignments to be set and marked via electronic mail and support given through video-conferenced seminars, and helping lecturers to collaborate with colleagues elsewhere in Britain or develop their work internationally. A pilot project or working model could be provided by De Montfort University in Leicester, which began a similar scheme in 1992.
A report from county council chief executive John Burnet said that the move away from direct grant to a mixture of grant and loan in further and higher education could result in a general shift towards using IT to deliver material locally.
Although an application for lottery funding from the Millenium Commission was unsuccessful because it did not have a sufficiently high profile, it was found to fulfil all the necessary criteria and work is continuing on submitting another bid.
"Pound-for-pound university development provides more benefits to local and regional economies than industrial or almost any other form of investment," said Mr Campbell-Savours, who worked on the project for four years before submitting his report. "The unique social strengths of Cumbria lead to very high numbers of young people wishing to stay in the county to study and will draw talented people in to the area."