Lincoln gets learning, and starts earning

Not only has a university enlivened the stagnating city, writes Louise Jury, but it's proving a handsome source of income
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Once universities were seats of learning. Now they are economic attractions. In the fiercely competitive 1990s, a university is high on the list of requirements for any thriving town.

Take Lincoln. The University of Lincolnshire and Humberside opened its doors last September, six years after east Midlands business leaders identified a university for Lincolnshire as the key to future prosperity. More than just an academic institution, it has transformed the cathedral city's fortunes, with money spent on food, books, accommodation and entertainment.

In three weeks' time the new intake of 800 first-years will follow the original 500 on to campus. The university, the first newly built higher education institution in Britain for 25 years, hopes to have 4,500 students by 2001. They and their tutors will be worth millions to the local economy: accountant Touche Ross estimates that 10,000 students will be worth pounds 50m a year.

Early signs of change are already there as businesses in the picturesque city respond to demand. A multi-screen cinema has opened, as have record shops. About 30 pubs and restaurants are planned or, like Pizza Express, already open. The new St Mark's shopping centre next to the university is attracting major stores like Debenhams.

Business, city and county leaders who stumped up much of the pounds 32m founding costs are bullish that their bold investment will be a turning point in Lincoln's fortunes. "Lincoln had to do something to wake up and it has done," said Roger Charnley, of the Humber and Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce. The alternative was "stagnation".

The new university is a dramatic sight. A bold glass and wood building, it has been built on previously derelict land next to a man-made harbour dating back to Roman times.

Eventually the campus will cover 38 acres. Jim Hanrahan, Lincoln's director of economic development, hopes it will spur the full regeneration of the waterside site, with a "cultural quarter" on the opposite bank.

"The university has raised Lincoln above the image of a pretty historic destination to being a more modern city," said Mr Hanrahan. "Lincoln tends to look to the past all the time. We need to say: 'We've got a past, but the future is exciting as well.'"

There have been teething problems. Last year's intake included around 80 foreign business students, and neighbours were a little irritated by their Mediterranean timekeeping, Mr Hanrahan reports. Some town pubs have been alarmed at the arrival of competition from major chains. But the council is confident problems will settle down.

Lincoln residents tend to be positive. Gary Tunstall, 21, who has just finished a degree at Canterbury, said the city was a lot busier. "It's certainly bringing more people into the town. It's been under-developed for a while so it is long overdue."

Edith Bridge, 87, admitted she was "mystified" by the university, but thought it "a good thing" in general, offering youngsters opportunities she never enjoyed. "It's very noticeable the town's livelier. It was a deadly place when I was young."

Kate Melton, assistant manager at Ottokars bookshop, said it was "like Christmas came a lot earlier" when the first students arrived. "We had hundreds of people coming in." The shop has widened its range. "We're a lot more willing to try things. We can really branch out."

That the university was regarded as vital by business is clear from both its history and its benefactors. It was the brainchild of Paul Hodgkinson, then head of the East Midlands Confederation of British Industry, and Prof Arthur Ridings, then director of education in Lincolnshire. The CBI commissioned a report in 1990 called Towards 2000, which mentioned a university. A project company was formed in October 1993 to raise the funds.

On top of pounds 10m invested by the county council, local builders, the Jackson Building Centres, gave pounds 500,000, and Cargill corn merchants, a major employer, gave pounds 250,000. The Co-op gave pounds 1m. There were CBI support groups in towns across the county. Lecture theatres have been named after key supporters.

The venture is very much a partnership. Criminology students help monitor Lincoln's closed-circuit security cameras, tourism students study the city's tourist business and architecture students drew up draft plans for the cultural quarter.

Cathy Twigg, university spokeswoman, said it needed to be part of the community. "The community has been so involved, we want to be open to the general public. We don't want to be this ivory tower."