The tough regimen endured by Gloucestershire before gaining university status has been like a 'boot camp', but it's a fitter, leaner institution that's emerged. Tony Tysome reports
Managers of the UK's newest university, the University of Gloucestershire, believe in the power of apprenticeship.
That is not just because nearly three-quarters of their institution's courses are work related. And it is not to do with the government's efforts to find a credible role for apprenticeships in today's education and training system.
It is because they feel that they and their institution have served the most thorough apprenticeship on the road to gaining the university title, in October last year.
Having missed joining the mass conversion of polytechnics to new universities in 1992, the former Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education has had a long wait to achieve its goal. At times it may have seemed doomed to perpetual "trainee university" status.
The road has been tough as well as long. Just a year after the merger between the College of St Paul and St Mary and half of Gloucester College of Arts and Technology that formed the Cheltenham and Gloucester College, managers were faced with having to make drastic cuts in staff numbers, courses and sites to tackle a £1.5 million deficit.
Now, with a decade of tough decisions and intense scrutiny by quality watchdogs behind them, Gloucestershire's heads believe their institution is better prepared than any other new university to survive in higher education's harsh environment.
Peter Easy, Gloucestershire's vice-principal, is in no doubt that the gain has more than compensated for the pain of the past ten years.
He said: "No other institution has been down such a hard road. It has almost been like going through boot camp.
"People may have been expecting us to slip into the bottom of the university league tables when we got the title. But we knew where we would fit in. We have arrived halfway up most tables, and at the top of some.
"We have convinced ourselves that the apprenticeship we have served did us good, because it has made us fit and able. I wonder how many new universities that got themselves into a jam in the mid-1990s would have done so if they had gone through the same apprenticeship."
This rite of passage placed an even greater premium than usual on making the most of the prize. An intense debate ensued over what the UK's newest university should call itself. There was strong local support for it to be the University of Cheltenham, cashing in on the city's upmarket image of race meetings, fashionable shops and well-to-do neighbourhoods. Some with the same exclusive outlook even suggested that the title should be the University of the Cotswolds.
For Dame Janet Trotter, principal since incorporation in 1990, choosing the right name was not just a question of marketing or geography. It had more to do with signalling the university's mission and its intended future direction. She had no doubts that these had to include reaching out to some of the less privileged local communities, such as young people living in the area of the Forest of Dean who are four times less likely to go on to higher education than those in Cheltenham.
She said: "I go back to the creation of Cheltenham and Gloucester College. The vision at that time was to be as strong an institution as we could be for Gloucestershire. There was a genuine sense of wanting to serve this community and being involved in its economic and social regeneration."
Getting the name right was just the first step towards broadening the university's student intake, described by the Higher Education Funding Council for England as "unusually middle class".
Dame Janet said: "Getting the university title is only part one of the journey. It gives us the powers to do what we were created for, to develop ourselves to be a powerful good within the sub-region. There is the next bit of the vision to be worked out. People think that once you have the title, you have magically arrived. But the truth is you have merely got a new opportunity to develop further."
Paul Drake, the university's director of external relations who is also responsible for access and widening participation, said the next step would be to analyse the demographic make-up of the county and then to aim to mirror this as closely as possible in the university's recruitment pattern. A similar exercise begun three years ago to target ethnic minority groups in the county has resulted in the proportion of ethnic minority students recruited exceeding the percentage represented in the local population.
He said: "We have shown that if we develop the right market identity, then we will attract the right kind of students."
Other more ambitious projects now under way include sending students to work as mentors for schoolchildren in education action zone schools in a bid to raise the aspirations of underprivileged pupils, and developing education programmes with local prisons, such as creative writing, that could lead to inmates performing their own play on campus.
Dr Easy said the roots of this kind of "social mission" could be traced back to the university's church foundation, which it retained. "Some of this comes more naturally to us than to a secular institution," he said.
But this is mixed in with some very down-to-earth academic intent. Part of the institution's fitness programme involved reorganisation into seven "super schools", out of which emerged some strong areas of research such as town and country planning, theology and English - all of which scored a 4 in last year's research assessment exercise. Dame Janet hopes to strengthen the university's research base further, and use its distinctive mission to develop a new social dimension to knowledge transfer.
"It will mean doing things that develop and support communities, and working with grass-roots not-for-profit organisations," she said.
Expansion is also on the to-do list. Managers are hoping that the opening of a new campus at Oxstalls in Gloucester this September will help boost student numbers from 6,500 to about 10,000 in five years' time. The location of the campus may also help in the widening participation effort.
Dame Janet admitted all of this would involve some careful financial balancing, since the university was on as tight a budget as most in the sector, and its "family silver" was running out. But she believes that it is in much better shape to take on that challenge now than it would have been had it become a university in 1992.
She said: "If that had happened we would have been a shambles. We would have spent the past ten years fighting the consequences of making soft decisions. Now we are pretty purposeful - because we have had to be."