Town & Gown: A way to grow home talent

August 8, 2003

In the second of our series, Olga Wojtas looks at the impact of a hybrid campus

In the early 19th century, Elizabeth Crichton, widow of a wealthy doctor and trader, had the dream of endowing a university in Dumfries.

Circumstances led instead to the foundation of a psychiatric hospital, but 170 years on, Mrs Crichton's vision has been realised. The 34-hectare hospital estate, bought by the local council from the health board in 1995, houses a unique further and higher education partnership that many in the local community see as the key to regenerating the region. Dumfries and Galloway is Scotland's second most sparsely populated area after the Highlands, with low wage levels and an erosion of its rural industries.

Gordon Mann, managing director of Crichton Development Company, which runs the estate, said: "Higher education has been the missing element from Dumfries. Youngsters had to go away to study but often found it hard to adjust (to a city) and had a fairly high dropout rate."

However, the Crichton University Campus, which began offering courses in 1998, found the heaviest demand was not from school-leavers but from adults, many of whom wanted to study part time. The campus is a pioneering partnership between Glasgow and Paisley universities and Dumfries and Galloway and Bell colleges, supported by the Open University, Barony College and the Scottish Agricultural College. Degrees, offered full time and part time, are geared specifically to local need. Paisley already had close links with Dumfries and Galloway College and now offers degrees in business, computing and social sciences, with college students able to go directly into the third year. College staff, a number of whom have upgraded their own qualifications to become Paisley lecturers, teach the courses, and the students said this continuity helped their transition on to degree courses.

Glasgow created an innovative liberal arts programme with core courses in transferable skills designed to maximise graduates' job opportunities.

Honours students, rather than writing a dissertation, must produce something for the community: the first cohort, which graduated in July, mounted an exhibition on the history of the Crichton Royal Hospital, made a CD-Rom on local traditions and devised a nature tourism website for the region.

Work placements are key to all the Crichton courses, and Mr Mann particularly praised Bell's decision to run nursing courses in Dumfries rather than at its Hamilton campus. Senior healthcare managers had been greatly concerned about the supply of nurses, but there is a huge increase in the number of local nursing student recruits.

Philip Jones, chief executive of Dumfries and Galloway Council, said concerns about shortages in key professions were particularly acute in remote areas. The Crichton, which is now expanding into continuing professional development, offered Dumfries and Galloway a chance to "grow its own", he said. "We're looking to introduce a scheme where there are studentships and sponsorships. We've got some very talented people here who don't want to leave."

Colin Williamson, chief executive of Dumfries and Galloway Enterprise, said that Crichton would also help to raise the region's profile to attract others. "It's a new dimension for us to market to the outside world - this is clearly a go-ahead place with higher education."

US institutions pulled out of a planned summer school because of the Iraq war, but Crichton attracts about 20 Socrates students a year, and Mr Williamson said there was scope to attract more international students, the economic equivalent of long-term tourists.

The campus underpinned the site's other development as a business park, he said. Dumfries and Galloway Enterprise had invested some £3 million over the past five years, including a broadband spur from the Superjanet network. This has attracted two high-quality call centres among the 30 business tenants. It helped fund research fellowships in rural entrepreneurship and in tourism, environmental heritage and culture - specialisms it wanted to see the campus develop - and was also part-funding a research fellowship with local firm DuPont Teijin Films, which manufactures film for use in the food industry.

An independent economic impact assessment shows that the university campus has created an extra 192 full-time-equivalent jobs, projected to rise to 324 in 2008. Campus posts have a knock-on effect on the local economy. The Crichton site as a whole has created an extra 843 jobs, set to rise to more than 2,500.

One senior academic, who moved from Glasgow to Dumfries, has bought an at-risk B-listed building to live in and restored it using local tradesmen.

His spending goes beyond shopping and entertainment, to hiring a local cleaner, gardener, accountant, lawyer and piano teacher. His wife is a supply teacher in rural schools, and their two children are helping maintain class sizes in the secondary school.

Mr Mann said every prediction of campus growth so far had proved a serious underestimate. "We thought by mid-2005 there might be 600 students and there are now 1,200."

Although local demand is still growing, expansion has stalled because of funding constraints. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has given the campus some 150 funded student places, but the rest comes from Bell, Glasgow and Paisley's allocations. And overall Scottish numbers are capped because of the Scottish Executive's policy of consolidating higher education. Plans for a greater range of courses, including postgraduate degrees, have also stalled, although by next year there is the prospect of joint degrees. The colleges have shown an unrivalled capacity for partnership, for example setting up a joint library and joint student advisory service, and there are plans to build halls of residence jointly with the health board. But the extra investment necessary for Crichton has come out of the parent institution's overall budget, undoubtedly at the expense of other activities.

Mr Jones said he wanted to see funds earmarked for Crichton in acknowledgement of its breaking new ground and doing what the Scottish Executive wanted in terms of wider access and social inclusion. "It's important for us to have some sort of sustainability for here. The risk is that the belt is tightened at the centre and we're squeezed out at the end."

Barbara Kelly, convener of the Crichton Foundation, a charitable trust that supports the campus development and links with the community, said:

"Everywhere you look, we've demonstrated success. The links with Dumfries and Galloway College mean we have the capacity to offer tertiary education in a way that is not being done elsewhere. That's a matter for celebration and investment."

Crichton is in an attractive conservation area and is open to the public.

The foundation promotes local participation through the "Crichton Conversations", debates with figures such as Andrew Cubie, whose report led to the axeing of tuition fees in Scotland. The foundation also raises funds for student support, and encourages local pupils to consider higher education. All the partner institutions would like to see Dumfries and Galloway College relocate to the campus rather than simply be represented through visiting staff. This is one of the options to be considered next month by the college board, but principal Tony Jakimciw stressed the decision would be driven by finance. Mr Jones said: "We've had good support (from the Scottish Executive). Our message is, hold your nerve and invest further."

STUDENT AND RESIDENT VIEWS: 'IT'S A WONDERFUL THING'

* Clare Carson, 30, part-time BA business student at Paisley University

"After school, I went to Dumfries and Galloway College to do an HND in business administration and then I joined the health service. A degree was always my ultimate goal but I've always been used to a small town so (going to a city) would have been too much of a step for me. I got married and stopped working when I had my wee one. The facilities were here to upgrade my career prospects. It's increased my self-confidence. I went straight into third year (of a degree course), and it was good to see all the staff that used to be at the college."

* Mary Smith, 49, graduated in July with an MA in liberal arts from Glasgow University

"When I left school, I joined the Bank of Scotland. I left after a year, did a bit of hitchhiking and worked for Oxfam. I ended up spending ten years in Pakistan and Afghanistan and set up a health education department to get across the message that leprosy is curable. When I came back, I wanted to do a degree but I was married with a child of five, and if the Crichton hadn't been here, I wouldn't have done anything. Right from the start, I wanted to do health and social sciences. In my third year, I took a placement at the local paper, which was good and I now have a part-time job in journalism. I've applied to do a PhD, having come through these four years and seen windows opening I didn't even know were there."

* Mark Murphy, taxi driver

"It's been a long time coming but it's very welcome. It gives people round here more options. It means they can stay in the town and go to university rather than going away, which keeps costs down. It brings a lot more characters into the town. And it does bring taxis more business from the station up to the campus."

* May Todd, pensioner

"I wouldn't honestly say I notice a lot of students around. To me, a university is St Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh. I don't have the same feel for (the Crichton) but I think that will come. My age group think of a degree as medicine or law or accountancy, but probably my generation needs to be educated that it's a wider area."

* Jennifer McGill, procurator fiscal

"I think it is a really, really positive thing for the town. I've noticed quite a lot of people doing modules and small courses, people who wouldn't necessarily have thought of doing it before. I think it's giving local people the feel that higher education is something they can do. And we're only at the beginning of it."

* David Swan, guest house proprietor

"It's brought life to part of the town that was dying and filled a tremendous void in the educational programme here. A lot of young people were having to leave the town and you don't get them back. It's given the town a chance to develop lots of small businesses. It's a wonderful thing and I hope it goes from strength to strength. It's all positive - there are spin-offs for businesses such as ours, with parents and lecturers visiting."

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