University of Cumbria: Can it raise ambitions and boost the economy of the region?

When the author, Margaret Forster, decided on a university, she chose Oxford where she headed with an open scholarship. Her husband, the writer Hunter Davies, who was also from Carlisle, picked Durham University. Another local luminary, the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, also selected Oxford.

None of them could have stayed at home, if they had wanted to, because until recently Cumbria had no university of its own. There was no higher education in the north westernmost corner of England beyond Lancaster, not even a college of higher education, though there was a teacher training college in Ambleside and an art college in Carlisle.

This lack in what is a very large and beautiful county stretching from Lancashire in the south to Scotland in the north, and from the Irish Sea in the west to the Pennines in the east had a profound effect on the region. It meant that clever and energetic people departed, never to return, and that those left behind had no institution to provide an intellectual and cultural focus for their ambitions.

The result has been a low proportion of the population moving on to higher education, which has been particularly acute in some areas, notably in coastal towns. Chris Carr, the vice- chancellor of the spanking new University of Cumbria, gets out his pen and draws a freehand map to show what he means. In the middle of Cumbria is the Lake District. To the west of that he sketches a sweeping crescent along the coast, from Morecambe Bay in the south to the Solway Firth in the north. This crescent contains towns with very small numbers going to university including Workington, Maryport and Whitehaven.

These are remote and isolated communities that have suffered the loss of coal and steel and are now at the centre of Britain's nuclear power industry. But they are deprived by reason of their geography and economic position, and because the lack of a university also affects the economy. "The local economy has not grown at the rate it should have," says Carr. "It has a long way to go to catch up."

It is hoped that will change with the creation of the new University of Cumbria this academic year out of St Martin's College in Lancaster, Cumbria Institute of the Arts and the University of Central Lancashire's Cumbrian campuses at Penrith, Carlisle and Cockermouth. It is an unusual university because its campuses are so far apart, which means the vice-chancellor is forever on the road, clocking up a huge mileage as he races up the M6 from Lancaster to Carlisle (70 miles) or negotiates the winding roads around the Lake District to Whitehaven.

In its first year, the university has just under 10,000 students and is hoping to expand to 15,000. Its courses cover art and design, the humanities, business, IT and law, teacher training, health and social care, and sport. "We need to raise aspirations," says Carr. "There are some very low aspirations in Cumbria and we have to help to lift them up."

That is why the university should be talking to families, not just children and young people, he thinks, because parents can have such an impact on the attitudes of their offspring. But it is also why the university has set up links with every school in the county, both primary and secondary.

It perplexes him that so many children do really well at age 11 but have fallen seriously behind by the age of 16. This is an issue that everyone involved in education needs to address, he believes, and is one reason why Cumbria University's governors have approved a schools' engagement strategy.

But the university is being seen as the engine that will drive the economic regeneration of the county, which has one of the worst-performing sub-regional economies in Europe. The idea is that by laying on courses that industry and other local organisations need, employment and business will be stimulated and economic activity will grow. "The kind of curriculum the university will develop will be one that is relevant to the region," says Carr. "It will be one where we can develop niche strengths. There is no point, for example, in the University of Cumbria creating a law school because there are many other universities with law schools already. Of course we have to have high-quality legal education, but we will be launching an institute of policing and criminal justice instead."

The university has turned its face against putting on courses that exist at established institutions such as the University of Lancaster and the University of Central Lancashire. In its institute of policing and criminal justice, it will offer foundation degrees for police officers.

At the end of 2007, it launched an institute of transport and logistics because this is an important industry in the North-west. Carlisle is the headquarters of Eddie Stobart, the haulier famous for his green lorries with women's names. From September 2008, it will run a foundation degree aimed at people working in this industry, particularly at first-line managers. Full degrees will follow in 2009.

The university is also discussing the possibility of a link with two Chinese universities, enabling students to study part of their transport and logistics course in China.

To help the crescent-shaped coastal area of deprivation west of the Lake District, the university plans to develop a campus on the edge of Workington near Sellafield. The aim is to join up with the Nuclear Academy which has been established to provide the skills needed for the nuclear industry and lay on courses required for nuclear decommissioning, and the new power stations that will be built in the future.

Concern about the lack of higher education in the North-west has existed for a long time just as it has in Cornwall. But it wasn't until 2005 that, Sir Martin Harris called for the creation of a university. The time was right. St Martin's College in Lancaster was on the verge of winning taught-degree awarding powers, so it was able to provide enough intellectual underpinning for a university to be established with headquarters in Carlisle.

St Martin's had acquired a former district general hospital in that city. That has had a fast makeover and where there were once patients' beds there is now a library, seminar and study rooms. Janine Cunningham, 20, training to be a teacher, appreciates all the changes. "It's nice to say we're from a university," she says.

Carr is looking forward to giving local students even better facilities. "I should like a smashing students' union that fronts on to the street," he says.

The more he can provide the more likely he will be to crack Cumbria's low higher education participation rate. A recent Hefce survey showed that only one in five of Carlisle's young people were going into higher education. Carr is confident, however, that he can get the statistics moving in the right direction and stop the Margaret Forsters of the future heading south to study.

Chris Carr: a life in brief

Born: 28 December 1951.

Educated: Tadcaster Grammar School, North Yorkshire; degree in law, Keble College, Oxford; Masters in law, Oxford.

Jobs: Lecturer at the former Leeds Poly, then principal lecturer and head of law at Lancashire Poly, now the University of Central Lancashire where he later became a dean and pro vice-chancellor. In 1997 he became principal of St Martin's College of Higher Education and in 2007 vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria.

Likes and dislikes: Likes English apples, fresh air and exercise, beekeeping, reading The Independent and Carlisle United; dislikes obsession with what happens in Premier League football at the expense of other divisions.

Currently reading: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.

Family: Wife is an artist; four children aged 20 to 26. The youngest is training to be a teacher. LH

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

£21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee