Staffs Surfs back to its poly roots

May 23, 2003

The largest further and higher education federal network in England has become the backbone of Staffordshire University's new mission, writes Tony Tysome.

Through Surf - the Staffordshire University Regional Federation - it has found a successful and comfortable way back to its polytechnic roots.

Paul Richards, deputy vice-chancellor, said: "We are not a new university that wants to grow up to become an old university. We are not ashamed of our polytechnic background."

The university said its partnership with 11 colleges in Staffordshire and Shropshire was helping to meet the further and higher education needs of the region.

Much of its future higher education expansion is planned to be through its partnership with the Surf colleges, which account for about 15 per cent of its student numbers.

Managers believe they have come up with a formula that is compatible both with the aims and aspirations of the colleges and the often-conflicting government policies.

The formula has proved so successful that Surf, though barely two years old, has won recognition from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and has notched up an "excellent" rating in the Quality Assurance Agency's first consortium-wide review.

Chris Birch, the university's director of research and commercial development, said the aim was to get all further education colleges in the region to join. The result would be a federal network similar to the relationship between US universities and community colleges.

Surf has its own board, with representatives from each college and one member from the university. All funding, curricular and strategic decisions are made on a federal basis, enabling the partnership to overcome many of the fears voiced by FE leaders about white paper proposals for expansion through foundation degrees.

College heads are concerned that universities will seek to claim foundation degrees for themselves in an effort to grab the only expansion money going.

But Staffordshire is already deep in negotiations with Surf over the design and funding of seven foundation degrees it intends to launch through a regional initiative called HE Full Circle.

The aim is to create a skilled workforce to support the local economy. It is typical of Staffordshire's mission to put itself at the heart of local economic and cultural development, recognising that there is great variety in the levels and types of educational attainment, skills, employment and employers' needs across Staffordshire and Shropshire.

The college network, which is linked to the university's online learning system, makes it easier for Staffordshire to tap into and respond to those various needs.

Arrangements for teaching are also tailored locally, depending on the subject and the college's level of expertise. Half the computing courses, for instance, are taught by university lecturers, while 85 per cent of engineering is taught by college staff. Even buildings are shared: half the university's recently extended Lichfield campus is owned by Tamworth and Lichfield College.

The university, having endured the awkward early years of incorporation, has enough confidence in its corporate identity to let go of any hankering after the trappings of an old university, including big research assessment exercise scores. This does not mean Staffordshire wants to abandon research. Rather, its regional focus will help it to develop its applied research profile.

Mr Birch said: "There are strong reasons why we are committed to research.

It is important to our staff and students, and our economic impact on the region. But in future we will not be focusing on chasing research assessment exercise money. Instead, we will be looking to link our research to innovation and enterprise."

The university has opened a business village with facilities for 18 companies at its Lichfield campus, and it plans to open 50 business units at a technology park in August. It hopes these might be used to develop spin-off companies created by students, who are being encouraged to take entrepreneurship modules and who will have access to a £10,000 business start-up loan.

Mr Birch said this had been possible because Staffordshire, rather than being led by the "new localism" in government policy, started investing in its regional role five years ago.

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