Regional focus puts local people first

June 4, 2004

Oxford and Wolverhampton represent opposite ends of the league tables. Claire Sanders and Tony Tysome visit them in search of common ground

The taxi driver pulled up in a busy street and nodded towards an imposing but faded 1920s building. "That's it - Wolverhampton University," he said.

I paid the £1.50 fare: the ride from the train station had taken all of four minutes. In fact, Wolverhampton's main campus is about as far from remote as you can get in the Black Country. It not only has the city on its doorstep but, when I arrived, it seemed to have a sizeable proportion of Wolverhampton's population squeezing in and out of its main entrance.

I went in, climbed a few marble steps, and joined a lengthy queue at reception. Later I was to learn that this act is referred to by managers and academics as "crossing the marble". Their worry is that the building's austere threshold might be off-putting to people for whom a university is an unknown and exclusive environment.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, opened an Information Technology Centre and a £26 million Millennium City Building at the university last year. The latter includes a "social learning area" designed in the style of an internet cafe.

The entrepreneurial spirit at Wolverhampton could not be more different from that being embraced at Oxford, but it is based on the same aims espoused by the Chancellor: creating a sustainable future.

The university hopes that its outreach activities - such as the UK's first higher education high-street "shop", which it opened in 1988 - will help people overcome the psychological hurdle to sign up for courses.

Some 7,600 people "crossed the marble" and signed up this year. Out of a total 23,000 students, 45 per cent are from working-class backgrounds, and 71 per cent are from the West Midlands.

According to John Brooks, the vice-chancellor, this is a reflection of Wolverhampton's core values, offering education to disadvantaged communities within the region.

Today, he said: "We offer many of our students an opportunity in higher education that no one else in their family has had. We are creating a new middle class, because they will want that experience for their children."

Professor Brooks said that Wolverhampton's outlook on higher education and its commitment to serving its region meant the university often had to work hard to meet student needs.

He said: "You cannot assume that all students have access at home to computers, books, or even that they read a daily newspaper. We have to provide significant support for many of our learners, because probably they have struggled just to get here."

New teaching and learning facilities are being built as part of a £70 million capital investment programme.

The focus on students is such that staff were forced to give up their offices to make way for more open-plan spaces to improve interaction between students and staff.

Professor Brooks admitted that he was "not the most popular person" when he suggested the change. But he said: "We have rejected the ivory-towers model. We don't have oak-panelled offices surrounded by books and journals.

We have spent the money on a modern teaching and learning environment for our students."

Most of Wolverhampton's students have a very clear idea about what they expect to get out of their course. Often they are aiming for a particular local job that will make their investment in higher education worthwhile.

Professor Brooks said: "Mostly they are not aiming for the stars, they are just aiming to improve themselves. We want to help them do that, but our hope is that we can also encourage them to think beyond the Black Country."

KEY FACTS

* Students: total, 23,328; overseas, 2,392; postgraduates, 3,906; proportion of undergraduates from state schools or colleges, 98 per cent

* Staff: total academic staff about 800, none of whom works in a 5 or 5*rated department

* Teaching and research: teaching grant (2003-04), £48 million; total research income (2002-03), £2.3 million

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