Charles Clarke described Luton University as 'bloody brilliant' yet it gets a bloody awful press. Alan Thomson finds that the much-maligned university is carving out a niche for itself
Luton University's main site, the Park Square campus, sits at one end of one of the town's shopping precinct. It could be any municipal office block, although a recent facelift injects a touch of glass-and-steel modernity into an otherwise drab town centre.
Plans to enclose the open car park at the front of the building in a £7 million glass atrium were recently shelved. The university has written off almost £750,000 in development costs as a result.
Around the corner from the main block is the university's seven-year-old glass-walled learning resource centre. This sleek modern structure could have done much to lift the university's otherwise functional public face, not to mention improve the looks of the town centre - if only it faced the main street.
But, as with many things in life, it is important not to judge Luton by its appearance. It has been dubbed the country's worst university in some newspapers and berated by Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London, for taking much-needed resources from the country's university elite.
Even lecturers' union Natfhe, whose members' reputations and jobs are threatened by persistent criticism of the university, this week claimed that Luton's status as a university was questionable because of plummeting student numbers.
The union has repeatedly raised allegations of mismanagement at the university, which it says has shed 450 staff in numerous restructures since 1997, while squandering money on misguided initiatives such as the abandoned atrium project.
Natfhe official Jenny Golden said the union was "closely monitoring" Luton, but she said she hoped new vice-chancellor Les Ebdon could turn things around.
The university insists that, in many ways, its major problems are not about standards; they result from a basic misunderstanding and deep-rooted snobbery of what it and many other former polytechnics do.
The university's new media art and design department is buried within the Park Square complex, well hidden behind the ugly exterior. It was built and kitted out at a cost of £5.5 million, and was given priority over the atrium. The university could not afford both, and a media arts centre was judged to be a greater contribution to student learning and the university's ability to attract students than an, albeit attractive, facade.
Teaching in media arts at Luton has been rated excellent by inspectors from the Quality Assurance Agency, and the university knows it must play to its strengths.
Despite earning such accolades, the academic prestige accorded to universities mirrors the social class/standing of the students.
Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, University College London, Bristol, York, Durham, St Andrews and Edinburgh are all excellent universities with top-notch teaching and research ratings. They are also populated by the sons and daughters of the middle classes.
According to the latest university performance indicators from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, just 9 per cent of Oxford and Cambridge's young first-time degree students are from working-class backgrounds with 14 per cent of Imperial's from the same backgrounds.
Meanwhile, those institutions perceived to be Britain's "third-class" universities - Luton being most recently labelled such by Sir Richard, a Hefce board member - cater overwhelmingly for the offspring of the working classes.
Forty per cent of Luton's young first-degree students are from poor backgrounds, compared with a national average of 26 per cent. Ninety-eight per cent of its students are drawn from state schools, compared with just 55 per cent of Oxbridge students.
Moreover, universities such as Luton, which was created in 1993, must contend with a funding and monitoring system that bears the hallmarks of a former age when far fewer universities catered almost exclusively for the upper and middle classes.
The whole of the university funding system is geared to increasing excellence in teaching and research. The difficulty for universities such as Luton is that the bulk of the teaching and research excellence is found in the country's older, more prestigious universities.
The gaps in funding across the sector are huge. Next year, Luton, with about 10,000 undergraduates, will get £17.6 million for teaching.
Oxford, with about 11,000 undergraduates, will get £58.9 million, Cambridge, with about 12,000 undergraduates, will get £60.2 million and Imperial, with fewer than 8,000 undergraduates, will receive £51.9 million.
Much of the gulf is explained by the fact that Luton has fewer science students compared with places such as Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial, and science students are funded at a higher level.
But Luton argues that many of its students are expensive to teach because they come from poor backgrounds, tend to have lower entry qualifications and often need more in the way of costly pedagogic support.
To add insult to financial injury, Sir Richard's recent public outburst focused on the access premium that universities such as Luton receive for each student they recruit from poor areas. He suggested that public money would be better spent on certain courses at his institution rather than at Luton.
Professor Ebdon, who comes from a working-class background and studied chemistry at Imperial, was particularly irked by Sir Richard's comments.
"We do get some widening participation money, but the true cost of educating the students from non-traditional backgrounds, according to the funding council, is some 35 per cent more than educating traditional school-leavers with a brace of A levels. Universities such as Luton get a 10 per cent premium for this work," he said.
Professor Ebdon is unequivocal about Luton's role as an institution dedicated to offering higher education opportunities to people from families with little or no experience of university and for whom university is not an obvious destination after school. The problem is money.
He said: "There is no doubt about the mission of this university. It is an access institution. And if the government, and as a nation, we are serious about offering the life-changing experience of higher education to more than just a few relatively privileged middle-class people, then we must properly support the teaching that takes place in institutions such as Luton."
The quality of teaching at Luton is high. The Times league table ranked it 14th out of 121 institutions for teaching quality last year.
Yet a quarter of Luton's students fail to complete their degrees, according to official figures. This is high, even among those universities that identify themselves as access institutions.
In February, The Sunday Telegraph ran an article on Luton posing the question "Is this the worst university in Britain?". This was based on stories run by The Times Higher on Luton's plans to make it harder for students to fail their courses and so reduce the likelihood that they will drop out in the first or second year of the course.
Luton has also had problems recruiting undergraduates, with knock-on effects for its teaching income.
Total undergraduate numbers stood at 12,200 in 1998-99 but fell to 9,813 in 2001-02, a drop of nearly 20 per cent.
Recruitment improved in 2002-03 when undergraduate numbers stood at 10,092 and Professor Ebdon is sure numbers will continue to rise.
Even so, Natfhe said this week that Hefce-funded student numbers were just 4,600. This puts the university perilously close, at least on paper, to the requirement that an institution have 4,000 full-time equivalent students to call itself a university. But the university should be safe as, under current rules, the title cannot be taken away and as it is increasing overseas and postgraduate recruitment.
Postgraduate numbers rose from 987 in 1998-99 to 1,944 in 2002-03. Overseas student numbers rose from 1,066 in 1998-99 to 2,535 last year.
But a combination of high numbers of dropouts and low recruitment is bad news for an institution selling itself as a champion of access.
Professor Ebdon said: "Overseas students have ensured the survival of the university, but we must do more to recruit local students. We must shift the mindset and become a customer-focused organisation. Most businesses have been through it, but universities as a whole must be among the the last vestiges of product-focused organisations. Put simply, we will go out of business if we are not a customer-focused institution."
For Luton and other universities, becoming customer-focused means offering courses that students want and getting rid of the ones they do not want.
Inevitably, as Professor Ebdon has found, this leads to tough and unpopular choices.
The university has approved plans to create a registry in charge of student affairs as part of Professor Ebdon's drive to make the university more responsive to student needs. The restructuring will inevitably mean redundancies.
This comes on top of major changes in 2001, ushered in under the previous vice-chancellor, Dai John, that saw the university axe many of its humanities courses, which were not attracting applications in the way that subjects such as media studies were.
Natfhe said that academic staff numbers had fallen from 1,400 in the mid-1990s to just 950 today following a series of voluntary retirement "trawls" and the axeing of major courses.
With the prospect of variable fees for students, these are the harsh realities facing access institutions such as Luton.
But the institution is confident that a customer-focused approach will allow it to carve out a growing niche in the higher education marketplace - a niche that could not be more different from that occupied by heavyweights such as Imperial.
'Full credit to the university for admitting its shortcomings'
"Any slagging off of this place I take personally because it discredits all my hard work," says Becky Hill, vice-president, communications, of Luton University's student union.
Ms Hill sums up what many Luton students feel in the face of a stream of critical newspaper reports. "Is this the worst university in Britain?", a Sunday Telegraph headline asked in February.
"Luton makes it harder to fail amid dumbing-down fears," The Times Higher wrote a month before that.
Ms Hill, who has just finished a degree in graphic design and business studies, adds: "I worked hard for my degree. I am looking for work and if employers are going to look at where I studied rather than at my credentials, then I wonder what sort of impressions they will have."
A group of students has assembled in the union's bar for the benefit of The Times Higher. The students' suspicion is almost tangible, which is hardly surprising.
The students admit that things are not perfect at Luton, but they are refreshingly loyal. Ms Hill says: "Full credit to the university for admitting its shortcomings."
Peter Norrington, a mature student doing a masters in internet technologies, says: "Luton is a very new university, so if there are issues here it is maybe not surprising."
Rachel Cranham, vice-president of education and representation for the union, says: "The spirit among students is very good and our lecturers are genuinely interested in their students."
Luton has well over the national average number of students from poor backgrounds, so it is not surprising that the costs of study figure large in students' minds.
Mr Norrington says: "The difference education has made to my life means I am willing to take the financial risk."
But Nathan Spencer, a media studies student, adds: "Four of my friends have dropped out this year because of money."
There is real concern about the effects of introducing top-up fees of up to £3,000 in 2006. But there is broad acceptance that students should contribute to their education.
Ms Cranham says top-up fees should be consistent across the board. "There are so many reasons people choose which university to go to, so why should the fees charged for going to different universities vary?" she asks.
Shane Yusuf, who is studying sports and exercise science, says: "I support top-up fees. I don't think we should get all this for nothing. Lots of other things need money more than universities, such as the health service."
Most of the students present chose Luton for the courses but there are other attractions. The proximity to London is a draw. And Luton airport, a favourite with cut-price airlines, is another plus point.
Partner in troubled times
The closure of the Vauxhall car plant in 2001 was a potentially massive blow to Luton, but it gave the university a chance to show exactly why universities are vital to local economies.
Three years on and thanks to the work of the university, town council and other organisations, the region has a bright future.
When the Vauxhall car plant shut its gates, Luton, with a population of little over 180,000, lost 2,500 jobs. A further 9,000 jobs in firms dependent on the Vauxhall works were also at risk.
Lorraine Butler, head of Luton Borough Council's regeneration team, said:
"Vauxhall's announcement in December 2000 that it was going to close the plant was a bolt out of the blue."
Within days of the announcement, the council had formed a Luton-Vauxhall partnership, bringing together the council, the university, the local chamber of commerce, the East of England Development Agency and others.
In employment terms, the partnership was successful. Luton's unemployment rate, which stood at 3.6 per cent in 2002, is now 3 per cent, only marginally higher than the national average.
But the changes wrought in Luton go far deeper and have led to the diversification of a local economy that for decades had been dependent on the Vauxhall works. Much of what has been achieved is due, in large part, to the university.
Ms Butler said: "It would have been much harder without the university. It proved invaluable in helping to reposition an economy under threat."
The university was involved not only in training and retraining former car plant workers but in kick-starting and supporting the new industries in which these retrained people would find jobs.
It was instrumental in creating Luton First, which operates as a one-stop shop for companies checking out Luton as a possible base and as a marketing tool to raise the national and international profile of the town and its environs.
The university also operates a knowledge-transfer partnership (KTP) that tailors university resources in education and research to the needs of local companies. In the past five years, Luton's KTP has engaged with about 5,000 local businesses, 98 per cent of which are small and medium-sized.
Luton is rated third nationally in terms of new start-ups.
Free services are offered to local business, including language and culture for business programmes to help firms do business abroad.
Also on offer, for a fee, are consultancy services with business people able to tap into expertise in the university.
Plans are under way for a fully fledged knowledge exchange that would entail Luton enhancing its partnership with nearby Cranfield University and other local higher and further education institutions in the region.