Luton has, to put it kindly, a PR deficit. Its airport once symbolised the ultimate in naffness and no w it has provoked still more ridicule with its new university. But are we scoffing at an institution that is making a valuable contrib ution to our nation's vitality?

Maybe one day," says Tim Boatswain, Luton's Dean of Humanities, "we will be allowed to escape from the shadow of Lorraine Chase." Sooner or later in almost every conversation at Britain's newest university that same hope is expressed, although never with much confidence.

It was 20 years ago, in a Campari advertisement, that a glamorous and exquisitely-groomed Ms Chase was asked if she was, as she appreared to be, from paradise. "Nah, Luton airport," she replied in broadest Cockney, and the Bedfordshire town still bears the scars. A dump like Luton, the ad implied, should not have an airport, and the airport it had - a place associated at the time with downmarket charter flights and long, squalid delays - was a fitting punishment for its presumption. Now this quintessentially naff place not only has an airport but a university, and a whole new class of sneers has been born.

A university ... in Luton? It seems the ultimate oxymoron. Who, people ask, would want to go there? Who would want the words "BA (Luton)" on their CV? Why would anyone who could get a place at any other university, new or old, choose Luton?

A Sunday Telegraph diarist rang to ask mischievously whether Luton, which was not even a polytechnic before assuming the status of university three years ago, had any illustrious alumni. Nicholas Tate, the head of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, once held up for ridicule a degree course called "Living and Working in Luton 1918-1939" (it was actually a research topic, not a degree). One member of Luton's staff, when he announced at his previous university that he had accepted a job at Luton, was advised to check his contract carefully, as if the place might fold at any moment.

Little wonder then, that Luton's head of admissions, Steve Kendall, speaks of the place suffering from a "PR deficit". Yet there it is, bang in the middle of the town, large as life, bold as concrete and ugly as a Khrushchev- era municipal office block. It has 14,000 students, six faculties, three main campuses, a management school, a Chinese Centre, a media studies department, a university press, a chancellor and vice-chancellor, a Learning Resources Centre, halls of residence and all the other trappings of a modern university.

This summer sees the emergence of the first generation of graduates to enter Luton when it became the country's 86th (and possibly last) university in 1993. As the finals papers are marked and the grades awarded, Tim Boatswain and his colleagues are not downhearted. They may curse Campari every now and then, but they have a zeal and pride about them that defies the condescension of others. And the students seem to feel the same way. The University of Luton, they believe, is going places. So what about that PR deficit?

THE CURSE of Luton goes back long before Lorraine Chase, for the simple truth is that the town is in the wrong place. It may have been founded by the Romans and it may be mentioned in the Domesday Book, but it doesn't really belong in the Home Counties.

It was in the 19th century that Luton parted company with the surrounding countryside and the neighbouring market towns by taking up the manufacture of straw hats - cheap land, it seems, was available locally for growing the raw material. Luton became industrial, with a proper working class, and even when the straw-hat business went into decline, it did not accept a quiet rural retirement. A far-sighted chamber of commerce had been out in search of what we would now call inward investment, and attracted the engineering and general manufacturing which is still there in force today.

Everything sets Luton apart from its environs; it has factories, housing estates, a professional football club, large black and Irish communities and the highest negative equity rate in the country. It even has a long history of civil disturbance - in 1919 the town hall was burnt down by a mob and the mayor forced to flee in disguise.

For more than a century Tory, Anglican, landowning Bedfordshire looked on in horror, and to some extent still does. The Lord Lieu-tenant of the county only recently lamented "the antagonism that has so often existed between Luton and the rest of the county".

If you visit the town, it must be said, you see it as the county sees it - not even its best friend could claim that Luton is beautiful. It has one genuinely old building, the chequerboard St Mark's church, which is mostly 14th century but can trace its foundation back to 917. Around it in the last century grew up a splurge of speculative building laid out without the faintest nod at planning or the slightest attempt at grandeur.

After the Second World War, just behind the church, they mowed down some houses and built a power station, complete with cooling towers. In front of the church they put the College of Technology, forbear of today's university and an undoubted eyesore. And then the city fathers had the rest of the town's heart surgically removed and replaced with the enormous Arndale Centre, the grim prototype for a hundred shopping malls up and down the country. No, Luton was never meant to be lovely.

The power station has gone now, by the way, and the Arndale Centre, as people are quick to tell you, has undergone an expensive revamp which makes it less horrible, but the fact remains that in architectural terms Luton ne vaut pas le detour, as the Michelin guide might put it.

You get a measure of the PR deficit that this creates from the university prospectus, which includes a very brave page headlined: "Why choose Luton?" The answer puts Peter Sellers's ode to Balham in the shade: "Luton is a lively town - it has the first Arndale Shopping Centre in Europe ... There is also a First Division football team, a regional sports centre and a brand new sports complex ... There is a wide choice of entertainment ranging from pubs and nightclubs to an arts centre and a theatre. Whether you're after sport, culture or just having a good time, Luton has lots to offer."

Go on then, laugh. (And just in case you did not know, Luton Town FC has since contrived to go down to the Second Division, where they will play the likes of Walsall and Wycombe.) But all this is just not fair. If Luton were in the Midlands or the North, it might well command a grudging respect as the sort of grit-and-toil place Britain's greatness was built on, but because it's in Bedfordshire, just off the M1 and just an insult's throw from London, it seems doomed to naffness. This is the heritage that Lor- raine Chase identified in those three cruel words, and that Tim Boatswain dreams of escaping.

TALK to the staff and students, though, and you get a different picture. Luton, they insist with defiant pride, "is a much better place to live in than to visit". And the university is brimming with energy and confidence. Dr Dai John is the deputy vice-chancellor, to be found in a bright and generous office off a corridor lined with photographs of people in academic robes. Luton, he says, may not fit in; in some ways, the county of Bedfordshire itself may be a bit of a mistake, but the fact is that well over half a million people live in the "Luton-Dunstable-Chiltern conurbation" and it is absurd to imagine they do not deserve their own university.

There are, he points out, universities in Bangor, north Wales, and at Lampeter in west Wales (he is Welsh). "Without casting any doubt on their credentials, you have to ask, why should underpopulated parts of the country have better educational provision than we have here?" And when he sets out his stall, it is not all defensive. Luton is aggressively - his word is "unashamedly" - vocational in its approach. "We don't have a hang-up about single-subject honours degree courses. We understand that employers are looking for graduates who have an understanding of what will be required of them in the world of work."

The university, like the Higher Education college which preceded it, has strong links with local industry. Vauxhall's middle management has been trained there for years; the emerging Chinese Centre owes its origins in part to a Luton Airport contract in China; 5,000 of the students are part-time and many actually do their studies in the workplace.

Degrees or degree courses are on offer in conventional subjects such as law, economics, psychology and architecture, but also in travel and tourism, electronic-system design, environmental biology, building surveying and marketing. This job-oriented approach even extends into the humanities, where, for example, students learn computer skills to a level unimaginable to most people who left university even 10 years ago, and where they must prove an ability not just to communicate ideas in writing, but to make oral presentations of their work.

None of this is unique, but Luton is probably more forthright than most. It has, naturally, a mission statement, and this includes the following undertaking: "Courses will be characterised by their wide choice and flexibility, vocational relevance, and the opportunities they provide for all students to achieve their full potential. Working partnerships with employers, professional organisations and other stakeholders, will remain a high priority." Dr John acknowledges that this approach departs somewhat from more traditional ideas of university life, but he insists that it is more in keeping with what happens in the United States or elsewhere in Europe.

To a degree that is unusual in British universities, courses at Luton are modular: you may do a single-subject degree, or a major-and-minor, or you may mix three disciplines. An accountant can study a language and the marks will count towards his degree, or a biologist can take a secondary course in social studies. "What we are offering is a distinctive alternative," says Dr John. "But it is just as demanding in every way. In the minds of many it may be inferior, but it's not. We have been crawled over by every kind of inspector and we've never had a bad assessment." He reels them off: linguistics scored 21 out of 24 in a funding council assessment; English scored 20 out of 24; sociology scored 18. "In some cases," he adds, "we're not allowed to score full marks because we haven't been around long enough" - in other words there is no track record to measure.

The student intake, however, has undoubtedly been affected by Luton's reputation, or lack of it. A relatively high (though falling) proportion of Luton's undergraduates comes from the clearing system, from students who haven't been offered places elsewhere. There is also a high proportion of students who live locally, and of mature students, who have in many cases entered via "access" courses because they had no A-levels, or low A-level grades.

Fittingly for a modern-minded institution, Luton University takes an accountant's view of this. They may not get the cream - although they insist they get some very good students - but they "add value". While any university can take clever school-leavers and end up giving them good degrees, Luton starts with material that may be less promising and achieves results that, while they may not be spectacular, can far exceed what even the students themselves thought possible. "We get some of the people that the A-level system has failed and we give them another chance," says Harriet Jones, a senior lecturer in contemporary history. "It may not always be easy, and it doesn't always work, but it usually does and then the rewards - for them and us - are if anything greater."

Steve Dunville is one of her students. He is 40, and until he had an industrial accident a few years ago was a carpenter who did well out of building domestic extensions in London during the 1980s boom. After the accident he found himself at home in Luton on income support, looking after his two young sons.

It was reading with the children at their school that gave him the idea he could try to become a teacher. A friend was taking an access course and encouraged him to follow suit; he loved it. Now he is finishing his first year of history at Luton and when we spoke was about to make a presentation on the role of the middle classes in British cities in the 19th century.

He believes the experience has released something in him that was previously hidden. "I was frustrated working in building. I seemed to have different views from the others when we talked about what was in the papers. Now I feel I have a better understanding of what's shaped my life, how Britain was shaped and particularly influences from Europe. I can talk to my grandparents about their lives too." If Luton University had not been there, Steve Dunville says, he would never have begun. "I'm in negative equity; I have no chance of moving."

Marcia King is another mature student. She is 38, was born in St Vincent in the West Indies, but has lived most of her life in Luton. "I love it here," she says. "Luton's been very good to me." She has a 15-year-old daughter and gave birth to another just before her finals last month. Educationally, she didn't exactly have a head start. She took three CSEs at school and later got a couple of O-levels before becoming a clerical officer in the civil service and then a wages supervisor at a charity.

"I wanted to do something I liked, and I have always liked history," she says. "And I wanted to prove I could do better." Now she is waiting for her results; she has handed in her dissertation on the press and ethnic issues and taken her last exams, on decolonisation and on modern Ire-land. She expects her daughter to go to university, and her baby. "I aim for Bs, then I go home and say 'See, I've got a B, you've got to do better'."

These are classic mature student stories, but most of Luton's intake are, of course, school-leavers, and their attitudes give grounds for hope to those keen to shake off Lorraine Chase. Donna Watford, 19, came from Margate for a Luton open day, liked what she saw and made it her first choice. "I was tempted by peace studies at Bradford but in the end I preferred this place. I wanted to do contemporary history and there aren't many places that offer it. Besides, it's new, it's clean, the teachers are nice, there's lots to do. People keep taking the mickey because of the airport, but I'm very happy."

Nigel Oram, from Birmingham, left his university application late because he didn't expect to do well at A-level and then surprised himself with two Bs. In the end he had a choice, and like Donna Watford picked Luton for contemporary history. The town's image never worried him, although he hasn't exactly fallen in love with it. "I stayed here once over Easter," he recalls. "Never again."

The university struggles for resources. Because it was never a polytechnic, but a higher education college, it was never entitled to high levels of central government funding and, as administrators point out bitterly, its present grants are geared to those old levels. "If you start at the bottom you're kept there," says Tim Boatswain. "So we're stuck in a historical model that keeps us on the floor."

The local MP, Sir Graham Bright, was so offended by this that he raised it in an adjournment debate in the Commons, asking: "Why are students at Luton allocated pounds 800 less than at the University of Hertfordshire, and over pounds 1,300 less than in York?" This state of affairs, he complained, was "almost obscene", particularly when Luton was teaching exactly the sorts of people whom the Government wanted to see drawn into third-level education.

But though money is short, the university still gets by, mostly it seems on efficiency and energy. The staff-student ratio, regarded as a key indicator of academic quality, is respect-able. Spending on library books, another measure, is relatively high, although by some accounts it has needed to be to bring the library up to university standard. Spending on equipment such as computers is also above average. Rapid growth has undoubtedly caused strain, but it has also created an atmosphere of creativity typical of new organisations (and that is what it is, for only 20 per cent of the staff have been there more than six years). There is a refreshing openness to change and new ideas, a sort of "hey, let's see if this works" attitude that would be unimaginable in most older organisations.

"I haven't got a big old-guard looking back, constantly bemoaning deteriorating conditions," says Dr Boatswain. "I've got a lot of good young people who don't know any better." And as if to prove his point, he starts talking about the university press, proudly picking new publications off his bookshelves and showing them off. "It is the opportunity of a lifetime here. If some- thing works and the money can be found there is very little fuss. You just get on with it."

LIKE it or not, we have many more universities these days, since the Government decided in 1989 that that was what we needed. And like it or not, one of them is in Luton. The town, by all accounts, is proud of it, and it surely deserves the break; as for the students, the staff insist that this summer they will get degrees marked as far as possible to the same standards as anywhere else. Yes, more of them will score marks in the lower end of the register than students will at LSE or Oxbridge, but then that is what you would expect, since by and large they started lower down the academic scale.

What is most important for Luton now is how the degrees are viewed by potential future students and their parents, by other academics and above all by employers. These are increasingly critical audiences, as Alan Smithers of Brunel University's Centre for Education and Employment Research points out. "A degree used to be a convenient way for employers to identify the abler people within a generation," he says. "Now, however, they are concerned at the quality of the degrees that are being awarded, even to the point that they are looking at people's A-levels as a guide."

However worthy and laudable it may be for Luton to "add value" by educating people with unconventional backgrounds or people from the national university- entry clearing system, Alan Smithers argues that it cannot build a reputation that way. A university, he insists, needs its quota of top-flight students and top-flight graduates who will impress employers. In the 1990s, graduates have to find jobs, and courses which demonstrably give them an advantage will attract the good students, and perhaps the blessing of employers.

On those terms, Luton has probably made a good start, despite its meagre resources. Its vocational approach seems designed to produce just those results, and it has the enthusiastic backing of local business and industry. The test will come as the graduates enter, or return to, the world of work. If they get jobs in significant numbers, the university should enter a virtuous circle of academic improvement. It should, but then Luton has a handicap that even little Lampeter does not.

In the end, it is nothing more than snobbery. Luton is an ordinary industrial town that Londoners and Home-County types like to look down on, rather as Cotswold folk do on Swindon. The university is a new university of the kind that older institutions, and their graduates, like to look down on in exactly the same way. Combine the two and you have a tempting bathetic punchline, ready and waiting to play the role that the airport played back in the 1970s. It will be difficult indeed to escape from Lorraine Chase.

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