A fount of knowledge in Lakeland

It looks as though a university in Cumbria could finally become a reality. Judith Judd reports
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For 40 years people have talked about a university for the Lake District. Now the idea has a chance of becoming a reality. Cumbria County Council has set a group of officers to work on it, an application for pounds 15m has been sent to the Millennium Commission and some of Lakeland's most famous sons and daughters, including Melvyn Bragg, Chris Bonnington and Anna Ford, are lending their support.

But the vision of the university they are being asked to promote is very different from the slate-roofed building with a backdrop of dancing daffodils that their forebears imagined. The University of the Lakes in the 21st century, as described in a 158-page report by Dale Campbell-Savours, Labour MP for Workington, would have sites throughout Cumbria linked by an electronic library and using distance learning. Industrial areas such as Barrow in Furness would play as important a part as Grasmere and Derwentwater.

Nor would it be a haven for literary scholars studying the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Instead, it would have a scientific and technological flavour. Subjects such as marine science and nuclear physics would predominate, though Mr Campbell-Savours' report suggests that there might be a Wordsworth Institute where international scholars would come to examine the poet's papers.

The university would be based partly on existing colleges with a school of energy and environmental science at the Westlakes Science Park near Whitehaven, a school of marine science at Barrow, a school of agriculture and environment management at Newton Rigg and a liberal arts school at Charlotte Mason college near Ambleside. A school of ecological science and sustainable development might be set up at Keswick or Ambleside.

The electronic library is the key. A mature student in Barrow, for example, might get a basic course pack and access to computers connected to the university's network of tutors based in Carlisle. The student's assignments could be set and marked via electronic mail and instruction given through video-conference seminars or face-to-face tuition.

John Burnet, Cumbria's chief executive and an enthusiast for the proposals, has already begun to investigate the possibility of an electronic library. No one, he admits, has yet sorted out all the problems of such a library, though de Montfort University in Leicester and one or two European universities have begun to do so.

The council is interested in the university partly to help the county's young people - the proportion going on to higher education is low and Cumbrians are seven times less likely to move away from home than students elsewhere - and partly for economic reasons. The local Confederation of British Industry is backing the scheme.

Existing universities which already have Cumbrian outposts are more cautious about the plans. Professor Robin Smith, head of the university of Northumbria's Carlisle campus, describes the Campbell-Savours reports as "a tremendous contribution to the debate". However, he acknowledges that there are difficulties to sort out. His own institution is happy with its relationship with Northumbria.

Lancaster University, of which Charlotte Mason college is part, is also willing to talk, but a spokesman said: "If there is a suggestion that Charlotte Mason should become the new humanities base of a new university, we have no intention of handing it over."

Lancaster points out that the project would be an expensive one. Since the Government put a brake on the expansion of student numbers three years ago, students for a new university would have to come from existing ones. Any new teaching buildings would need to be financed from private sources. A new university is being founded in Lincolnshire with money from the county council and private sources.

Mr Burnet believes firmly that the University of the Lakes will happen. "We are pleased to have reached the second stage with our bid to the Millennium Commission but that is not crucial to the university's future. It is essential to get local support and we are talking to academics and businessmen. I believe it is an idea whose time has come. There is a need for different types of study, and conventional universities may not be the best way for the 21st century."