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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