Higher Education: Brought into focus after a photo call: Margaret Thatcher's visit to Teesside was the boost that University College Stockton needed. Stephen Pritchard reports on an innovative venture

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The Independent Online
THE OFFICIAL opening of University College Stockton next Tuesday will bring to fruition a project that owes its origins to a famous photo call for Margaret Thatcher in 1987. Her 'wilderness' visit to a former industrial site on Teesside was the boost the area needed in the campaign for a university that it had been running since 1959.

Although approval for the university college had to wait 32 years, the college itself took only nine months to build. It admitted its first students in October, to four BA and BSc degrees - in European studies, environmental technology, environmental management and human science. Jim Lewis, the college's vice-principal, describes them as 'the themes for the next century'.

Certainly, innovation is central to the college's work - as much out of necessity as choice. Its administrators believe its advantages are unique. It is small, with only 180 students so far, purpose-built and without inhibiting traditions that might prevent it experimenting with teaching methods and course structures.

Bob Parfitt, the principal, believes innovation is a way of overcoming financial restrictions. 'We recognise it is capital-intensive, but we're looking at multimedia education. We're networked for sound, vision and data. We don't have an existing stock of multimedia equipment so we can tender for what we believe is necessary - using floppy disk or CD-Rom for teaching languages, instead of tape, for example.'

Professor Parfitt expects that staff time (teaching staff also have responsibilities at nearby 'parent' universities) can be concentrated where it is needed most: for example, in tutorials. But the institutional status of University College Stockton is its most unusual feature. It is a joint venture between the universities of Durham and Teesside, with the construction, costing pounds 7.8m, being financed by the Teesside Development Corporation. The college is a product of two different needs: to enlarge higher education, especially in areas with below-average participation such as Teesside, and to help in the physical regeneration of the region - the reason for that prime ministerial visit during the 1987 general election campaign.

There are costs and benefits to the joint venture approach. 'Our strength is the financial and academic solidity that the parent institutions bring,' Dr Lewis says. 'Managerially, it has probably been more complicated, but we have gained from the mixing and exchange of experience.'

It is worth remembering that when the joint venture was first discussed in 1990, the division between polytechnics and universities was still very much in evidence.

Inevitably, the first year at UCS has seen a number of problems. The speed of construction, and the need to answer to the governing bodies of the two parent universities, have accentuated any teething troubles. Changes at the highest levels have meant that the management team has had to deal with two prime ministers, four secretaries of state for education, three for the environment, two new vice-chancellors at the parent universities, and a new higher education funding council. As Dr Lewis says: 'It has not been a stable environment. We're accountable to all of them, and that's not easy.'

Yet UCS has high hopes. 'What has not been a problem is our students. They have adapted to difficult circumstances and uncertainty. They have accepted problems and solved them. We've seen students go through more experiences in six months here than most would elsewhere in two years.'

The students themselves found their initial experiences disorientating. For the first few days, the university college was the focus of attention of local press and dignitaries. But when they moved on, the reality of studying at a new institution was a shock. As one put it: 'We found we had to do everything for ourselves.' However, they acknowledge the pressures that college managers were under.

Such resilience owes at least something to the make-up of the student body. One-third is local to Teesside, and the proportion of mature students is above average. Those proportions will fall as the college expands to its target of around 1,000 members. But it hopes to keep the door open to applicants who might not meet the 'standard' criteria for university admission.

Professor Parfitt says: 'We are willing to give people an opportunity. It remains to be seen whether our loss rate is greater than at other institutions because of that. But we are willing to take risks if the students are.'

(Photographs omitted)