Regions in search of an identity

April 25, 1997

When the polytechnics became the latest wave of new universities in 1992 there was a scramble to retain or adopt an attractive city title. But as many of the older universities had already appropriated their city name, a fair amount of ingenuity was required, with the co-location of names of rivers (Trent), benefactors (John Moores) and historic places (Hallam) proving particularly convenient.

Others preferred a more ambitious geographical sweep (University of Central England, University of Western England) to the supposed marketing allure of a tighter urban nomenclature.

It appears that recruitment is helped if a new university is identified with certain large cities (but not all). The more arcadian a title the more difficult it is to improve market share. Yet the pendulum seems to be swinging back to the concept of a regional university, and title, as perhaps providing a stronger profile.

De Montfort University has been particularly successful in harnessing the idea of a "distributed" university to a wider catchment area. But universities like Derby are also attracted by the notion of a regional university because it chimes well with a commitment to access and a wider and more articulated relationship between further and higher education. Moreover, a Labour government, the Dearing inquiry and developments in the European Union and government offices, are other prospective straws in a wind blowing increasingly warmly in the direction of regions.

Roger Waterhouse, vice chancellor of Derby University, has written that, for him, "regional" means "simply a provision which is physically distributed (though not entirely) across a given geographical area...the idea is transferable to a huge area such as the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, or a small area such as a city".

Geographers, however, preferring less elastic notions, increasingly describe regions as inextricably linked to globalisation: as fairly large areas characterised by increasingly complex infrastructures of knowledge - creation and learning in advanced capitalism. For universities, a region is formed by some clearly material factors. If a geographical area had its own funding councils and political regimes, then it is likely to be regarded as a region irrespective of existing communal affinities. Structures define regions.

Regional development at the global or economic level has increasingly been achieved by large organisations "transplanting" their activities to new areas and markets. One way in which the Dearing committee might foresee the provision of university education to areas lacking a physical entity with that title, is by encouraging "transplant" activity by existing universities to such areas.

This could be achieved through closer collaboration with existing further education colleges, or increasing reliance on various forms of distance delivery. Yet universities offer more than services to the area in which they are located. They provide real benefit from being a key cultural participant.

It would also be disappointing if distance provision within regions became entirely technologically driven. The increasing attraction of schools/colleges/university collaboration in supporting learning at a distance, however, does allow for a more human face in delivering education over a wider area.

There is no necessity for every location of the regional university to be fulfilling exactly the same relationship with its region. Some campuses may be adept at multi-disciplinary access provision, while others specialise in applied research. It is difficult to foresee universities becoming smaller or even more specialist. But the larger regional university can offer a model where diversity is most effective within rather than between universities.

Roger King is vice chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside.

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