Universities shape up for a turf war

January 5, 1996

The regional university looks set to play an important role in the future of British higher education. But is it a good thing?

Like buses, universities tend to arrive in groups. After Oxbridge came the Scottish ancients. The Victorians gave us the redbrick civics and the federal universities of London and Wales. These were followed by the 20th century torrent of new civics, greenfield campuses, ex-CATs and former polys. The next looks like being the regionals.

The University of Humberside says it aims to provide Humberside and Lincolnshire with a "truly regional university" through merger with the University of Lincolnshire, whose Lincoln campus is due to be completed by autumn. The university plans a 100-mile wide "super campus" with a dozen study centres in Lincolnshire, linked by computer network with access to an electronic library, seminars and tutorials.

Other gaps in the map of higher education are rapidly being shaded in. The Highlands and Islands in Scotland, the North Yorkshire Moors, the Lake District, Wiltshire, Suffolk and Cornwall - all without universities - have projects to provide higher education, or at least access to it.

These plans are not an entirely new departure. There are already universities with a string of campuses covering a wide geographical area.

The University of Ulster has four sites spread across the province. The University of Northumbria has crept along Hadrian's Wall, from Newcastle to Carlisle via Morpeth. De Montfort University, with campuses in Leicester, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Lincoln, describes itself as a "distributed" university. With both De Montfort and Humberside claiming to provide Lincolnshire with its own university for the first time, unhealthy rivalry looms.

Anglia Polytechnic University, with main campuses at Chelmsford and Cambridge, and partnerships with colleges throughout East Anglia, calls itself "Anglia - a regional university".

In Wales, the Community University of the Valleys, run by the University of Wales, Swansea, is part of the university's contribution to what vice chancellor Robin Williams calls the "economic and community regeneration of the valleys through a redefinition of lifelong learning".

This trend towards a regional - rather than national or international - focus for higher education is being driven by a number of factors. Reduced maintenance grants, and the greater numbers of mature students with children and mortgages, are leading more to stay-at-home. This particularly affects "old" universities, 47 per cent of which recruit fewer than 20 per cent of their students from their region.

Modular degrees, credit accumulation and transfer possibilities make it attractive for universities to think in regional terms.

The European Union's fondness for regional development has provided funding, particularly for institutions in Merseyside, the Highlands and Islands, and Northern Ireland (designated Least Favoured [Economic] Regions). For example, the Graduate into Employment Unit on Merseyside - aiming to place graduates in regional companies - has been set up by the University of Liverpool with one-third of funding from the EU.

But there is concern that as smaller colleges and institutes are swallowed up by regional behemoths, diversity will be diminished by identikit universities providing the most popular courses.

Brian Robson, pro vice chancellor of the University of Manchester, has warned that as universities are tempted increasingly to move down market they had to ask themselves whether many types of training were not done better by further education colleges. The closer relationship of regional universities and their business communities might undermine freedom to carry out pure research in favour of short-term applied work, which is more likely to attract private funding.

The prospect raised by Erin McCoy of the University for Suffolk Task Group, and David Muller, vice principal of Suffolk College, of a market-led approach, with individual communities "owning" industrially-led universities, is understandable. But it raises important questions about the principle of academic autonomy. If a university's aims and finances are too closely associated with stakeholders, then how much autonomy does that institution have?

The Government's policy of consolidation means there is a block on the growth of full-time student numbers. But when that policy is relaxed, expansion plans for regional universities should take off. We can then expect to see an outbreak of turf wars as universities with regional ambitions - and overlapping catchment areas - fight it out for local students.

Stephen Court is a researcher with the Association of University Teachers. The views expressed are his own.

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