Coasting to success

The Combined Universities in Cornwall project is set to attract the best to the West, says Caitlin Davies
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The Independent Online

If you live in Cornwall and want a degree: go somewhere else. That has, until recently, been the dismal situation facing many students. Not any more. In October a £50m upgraded Tremough campus opens in Penryn near Falmouth, part of the Combined Universities in Cornwall (CUC) project. While the new campus is the CUC's centrepiece, a further £15m has been spent on refurbishing local colleges.

The idea of the project is to increase opportunities for study and research, nearly doubling local student numbers from the current 4,200 to 10,000 by 2010. "Traditionally degree students have had to go to Plymouth or Exeter, and often further afield. They study outside the county, get jobs outside, and many don't come back," says Professor Keith Atkinson, chair of the CUC executive group and the University of Exeter's Cornwall provost.

Cornwall does have two specialist institutions: Camborne School of Mines (part of the University of Exeter) and Falmouth College of Arts, which has been housed at the Tremough campus since 1999. It also has higher education provision via the Open University and local colleges. But this does not provide the wide range of study or numbers of places available elsewhere in Britain. Until now, an amazing 90 per cent of young people in Cornwall who take up higher education leave to study elsewhere.

Which is where the CUC comes in. It wants to allow more local students to stay as well as enticing new students in from outside. Funding has come from a variety of sources, including the Government and the EU, totting up to £65m so far.

The CUC is not a university in itself (a fact that still confuses many), but a partnership between existing higher and further education institutions. The partners are: Cornwall College; the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth; Falmouth College of Arts; The Open University; The College of St Mark & St John; Peninsula Medical School; Truro College and Penwith College.

CUC is built around a "hub and rim" concept. The "hub" is the Tremough Campus where millions have been spent on new facilities, including a new centre built into the hillside featuring a highly unusual grass roof. "It's like being in a meadow. It's a wonderful experience," enthuses Professor Atkinson. If that wasn't enough, he lists Cornwall's other attractions: the Eden project; one of the longest coastlines in Britain; the yachting and surfing. He also says Cornwall is a safe and environmentally clean place to live.

It's not just existing Falmouth students who will benefit from the new campus, for the University of Exeter will be moving its existing provision in Cornwall there as well. Brendan Godley, an Exeter lecturer, has recently relocated to the new campus where he works for the Centre for Ecology and Conservation. "Our remit is to use Cornwall as our classroom," he says, and the centre aims to help in biodiversity conservation both locally and abroad.

Students from Exeter and Falmouth will share academic, sporting and leisure facilities. They will also share the new student residences, developed at a cost of £17.4m and providing 500 student places. A further £4.5m is being spent on specialist equipment, including research and development facilities for biological sciences. And let's not forget the new facilities for Falmouth College of Arts' Design Centre, with state-of-the-art studios for 3D and spatial design, textile and garden design and contemporary crafts.

Aside from "hub" site at Tremough, the "rim" is being upgraded as well, with millions invested in new higher education facilities at partnership college sites across Cornwall. And as well as new buildings, there are also new courses. Under the CUC there are now around 400 courses, ranging from Higher National Certificates to PhD degrees. The idea, says Atkinson, is to feed from the rim to the hub. The "rim" providers generally offer foundation degrees, while the "hub" offers three-year honour degrees and research opportunities. If this works, then fewer students will have to leave Cornwall at all.

Exeter has developed 12 new degree courses in geography, biological sciences, the specialist disciplines offered by Camborne School of Mines, English and the humanities. The University of Plymouth and its partner colleges have developed more than 30 new foundation degrees. These include a BA in contemporary world jazz at Truro College and a foundation in zoological conservation at Cornwall College - both of which have Clearing vacancies.

As the CUC is not a university in its own right, degrees will continue to be awarded by the project partners. Each institution has its own prospectus and recruits for its own courses - and the Clearing process will follow the partner institutions' usual procedures. CUC isn't registered as a separate institution with UCAS and does not have its own Clearing code.

'It's laid back here and we've got the sea'

Twelve years ago when Amelia Smith's mother wanted to study art, she had to relocate her family from Cornwall to Cheltenham. But Amelia is a new generation of Cornish students and thanks to the Combined Universities of Cornwall (CUC) project she can stay home and study in the place she loves.

The 20-year-old is about to start a BA in English at the CUC's new Tremough campus. "I have a job here, I have a partner here and a house, it's very convenient," she says. "Otherwise I'd have to travel to Plymouth every day." Amelia makes puddings at a local award-winning pub, and she needs the job in order to support herself. "I want to stay in Cornwall because it's brilliant down here, the people and the way of life. It's laid back and we've got the sea."

She's excited both about the new course and the new campus. "I had a look round and it's very impressive. And I've heard about the roof garden. I can go up there with a cup of coffee and study!"

Amelia recently finished an access course at a local college, but other students on the course will be leaving the county. One friend will be travelling two hours to Exeter each day to study. "She's had to put her youngest child in a crèche in Exeter, but she can't move the other two children because they're doing their GCSEs. She's suddenly realised how hard it's going to be. If Cornwall didn't have a university where I could study English, then I don't know if I would do it at all, all that hassle." But with the new campus she will only have a 30-minute journey to class.

After her English degree, Amelia wants to become a teacher, so she's aiming for a PGCE. But, as far as she knows, there is nowhere to do a PGCE in Cornwall as yet. The nearest provider is in Plymouth, an hour and a half away.