Now Cornwall keeps its cream

With no university, it had to watch its ablest students go elsewhere. But that's no longer so, says Nick Jackson
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They are only the latest to do so. Since 2001, the eight universities and colleges serving Cornwall that have come together to form the CUC have been blazing a trail for higher education as a moneymaking enterprise. Not in the increasingly familiar sense of making money for the institutions themselves, but rather as a catalyst for development across the region.

That, at least, is the idea behind the more than £100m being invested by the European and British governments, together with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), to quadruple the number of higher education places available in Cornwall.

You might expect, with stories of Sloaney debauchery in Rock, and all the money coming in from that ice cream, that Cornwall would be flush with millionaires. You'd be wrong. Cornwall has one of the lowest regional GDPs in Europe. A major factor in that lack of development, according to both educationalists and economists, has been a lack of higher education provision.

Examination performance in Cornwall is good compared with the national average, but with no Cornish universities, 90 per cent of students who had been going on to higher education had been forced to move out of the county. Most had never come back.

"Cornwall was losing its brightest people," says Gordon Kelly, who has been co-ordinating the formation of the CUC. "We had a lower-qualified workforce and companies were not coming in. We wanted to find out how to stop that brain drain." Beyond the obvious benefits that a £100m investment brings, Kelly hopes that by forging links between graduates, academics and companies, and focusing on research and vocational courses relevant to the Cornish economy, the CUC's development will encourage more people to invest their time, and companies to invest their money, in the region.

So far, the project's backers have been impressed. "It's still early days, but the economic regeneration argument is getting increasingly interesting," says David Noyce, HEFCE's regional consultant for the South-west.

Noyce was particularly impressed by research done by KPMG showing that people who had not thought of going into higher education before were now considering it. "I was inspired by those comments," he says. "It wasn't the usual hype. People's perceptions were being changed about higher education."

For their part, the universities and colleges that make up the CUC are doing all they can to attract more students, where necessary adapting to the sometimes inhospitable Cornish environment. "We want solutions that meet student needs, not institutional needs," says Dr Ken Woodcock, vice principal at Cornwall College.

To overcome local transport problems, development is taking place on sites across Cornwall, and to make life easier for working students, courses are being made as flexible as possible, with some courses catering for tourism employees only taking place over the winter months. And it seems to be working. From 2001 to 2005, higher education student numbers doubled from around 1,000 to 2,400.

Jenny Collins is one of those students. Collins, 19, grew up in St Austell and did her A-levels at Cornwall College. "I didn't know what I wanted to do," she says. "I was quite happy being here, at home. The idea of going and doing something I wasn't certain about didn't seem a good idea, with the cost involved."

The CUC's tourism management foundation degree, taught at Cornwall College and validated by Plymouth University, gave her the chance to stay on and study. "It seemed a good idea to stay at home and do something that could become a full degree later," she says.

"That way, if it didn't work out, I hadn't lost anything. And as it worked out, I really enjoyed it. It's been nice to be able to study and do work experience in an area I grew up in."

Keeping knowledge local is what this is all about. But ultimately, admits Dr Woodcock, it is not flexible courses or local facilities that will make people stay. "Cornwall's just a blooming nice place to be," he says.