Higher Education: Come to sunny Cornwall, and feel degrees better

A country house in Penzance could be the location for a new university campus if funding can be found, writes Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online
Tourists have long flocked to Cornwall for sandy coves and beaches. From the year 2000, people may also come to study for a degree at a university campus overlooking the sea in Penzance - if Sir Geoffrey Holland, vice- chancellor of Exeter University, has his way.

More than pounds 44m is being sought from the Millennium Commission and the European Union to transform a stunning 75-acre site and country house into the new university. "I am very pleased at the momentum we are generating," says Sir Geoffrey, who lives in St Ives.

If the project gets off the ground, it will mean the first new university campus in Britain for a long time. For Sir Geoffrey and Professor John Inkson, chairman of the Cornwall steering group, it will also represent the realisation of a dream going back several years.

Cornwall is one of only four counties in England that do not have a higher education institution offering teaching and research in a full range of subjects. It boasts the Camborne School of Mines and the Falmouth College of Arts, but these are specialist in character, which means that 2,500 Cornish students leave the county each year to pursue their studies. Most of those never return. There are no research establishments to support industry and commerce, and no chance of attracting students into the county.

At the same time, Cornwall's young population is growing as more and more families move to the South-west for the air and scenery. Yet its economy is disadvantaged, according to Sir Geoffrey. Mining, fishing and agriculture are declining, and tourism is subject to the cold wind of foreign competition. The county has one of the highest unemployment rates in Britain. "We believe we have a responsibility to the economy and region of the South-west," Sir Geoffrey says.

The plan is that an pounds 80m Penzance campus should be part of Exeter University, just as Exeter was founded as a college of London University. It will start small and could eventually expand until it is able to stand on its own feet as the University of Cornwall. Much needs to be done, however, before it gets off the drawing board.

Two weeks ago, officials from the Millennium Commission went to visit the site at Trereife, Penzance, to consider a bid for pounds 22m. They looked at the impressive estate, the 250-year-old listed house and the view over Mount's Bay and studied plans drawn up by architects.

The steering group hopes that another pounds 22m will come from the EU, and that further sums will come from banks, the National Lottery and the private sector to pay for student residences, business start-up units, a conference centre and arts and sports facilities. The aim is to have 5,000 students and 300 staff and to emphasise "lifetime learning" rather than simply the education of a group of 18-year-olds. In other words, schools, colleges and workplaces around the county will hooked up through cyberspace with the core campus. Students will study through distance learning. They will take part-time courses on computer terminals in secondary schools and community centres. The emphasis is on students of all ages being able to study for degrees as well for qualifications that promote their professional development. Potential subjects include business studies, maritime history, heritage, Celtic studies, European languages, information technology, biological and environmental studies and food science.

If the approach sounds like the Open University, it is meant to. The OU is the biggest single provider of higher education in Cornwall and will be given a base on the new campus.

But the crucial question is whether the Higher Education Funding Council will cough up recurrent funding of pounds 6m a year to pay for new students. Sir Geoffrey is pinning his hopes on recent comments made by the council's chief executive, Professor Brian Fender, that universities should be able to bid for extra students on social, economic and geographical grounds. "They're clearly beginning to think very seriously about those parts of the country which don't have a resident core university campus," Sir Geoffrey says.

He is also hoping that the review of higher education by Sir Ron Dearing will help his project along.

Sir Geoffrey, a former permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, is a member of the Dearing committee, so he is in a good position to promote his own ideas, one of which is that access to higher education needs to be expanded further.

At present around a third of the age-group goes into higher education. Sir Geoffrey would like it to be more like 40 to 50 per cent - and he would like some of them to study in Cornwall.