A tour around the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) would take more than five hours – and that's if you don't get lost or visit any future development sites. In fact, most of your time would be spent travelling from one campus to another. The university, which came into being last August after the University of Paisley merged with Bell College, sprawls over four campuses in Ayr, Dumfries, Hamilton and Paisley.
"On a geographical basis it can sometimes be tricky," says David Buttery who, as president of the students association, regularly makes the two-hour car journey between Hamilton and Dumfries, and then drives another two hours from Dumfries to Paisley.
But he says his life is made easier by vice presidents stationed at Hamilton and Ayr, a deputy president based in Paisley, and strong links with the separate student association in Dumfries, which is also connected to the University of Glasgow.
And while the geographical spread poses challenges for both student and university managers, it is also seen as a strength, bringing university-level education to people who might never have considered it were it not on their doorsteps.
"Demographics mean the reduction in 18-year-old school leavers in Scotland is greater and happening faster than elsewhere in the UK, so it is essential in Scotland that we recruit from a larger pool of learners than in the past," says Gill Troup, deputy principal of the university. "Part of that is taking learning out to communities who cannot travel, and it is also working with employers."
The new institution has more than 18,000 students – 50 per cent of them part-time, which gives it the highest percentage of part-time students of any institution in the UK, apart from the Open University and Birkbeck. This means that, for the first time, there is a university in Lanarkshire, an area where traditionally there has been low take-up in higher education. New technology is bringing higher education into people's homes, and a three semester system (rather than two) means teaching goes on throughout the summer, offering students even more flexibility in the way they learn.
All this brings benefits not only to students but also to communities. The institution now has the largest school of health, nursing and midwifery in Scotland, with 2,500 students, many of whom can now study much closer to home than would have been possible in the past.
The wide geographical coverage at UWS makes for a huge number of potential university partners. "One problem has been that those who study in Glasgow for health qualifications tend to stay there," says Troup. "The South West needs people that stay in their local area."
The university area covers five NHS trusts, and it has partnerships with a range of local industrial and commercial employers. It also has contacts with every school and college in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Another advantage is that students can choose what sort of university setting would suit them best. While certain campuses have a natural strength in particular subjects for historical reasons – Paisley's engineering reputation is based on its importance to the area's shipbuilding industry, and Ayr houses the postgraduate business school – the idea is that, rather than specialise in a particular subject, all four campuses offer exactly the same core disciplines, including business, health, computing and, soon, education. Therefore students can decide whether they would be more comfortable studying one of these subjects in a historical building in Dumfries, surrounded by green space, or in the buzz of Paisley or city centre Hamilton.
Paisley and Bell College received around £14.9m from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to help with immediate merger costs. The university is also investing in developing its estates, with a £75m campus planned for Ayr by 2011, and in increasing its range of provision. Sports science, digital design and games technology, media and tourism are all growth areas.
The two original institutions each operated small campuses based on a central hub with a number of learning spokes leading from it. The aim of the new institution is to move towards a genuinely four-campus university.
Buttery says that the new institution already offers students a greater choice of modules and subject disciplines than either of its two predecessors and as a result has attracted a more diverse student body.
There were some teething problems, says Buttery. While students at Paisley hardly noticed the difference immediately after the merger, some former Bell College students felt that they should have been better informed about what was going on. He takes some credit for the student association's efforts in helping to answer their concerns, but also praises staff for giving all students their support and encouragement during the merger period. "Now," he says, "Hamilton campus feels part of a bigger family."