If you think Durham is a small, ancient and perfectly formed university where students study traditional humanities subjects such as theology, classics and philosophy, think again. Durham excels in the sciences and it is expanding, not on its sublimely beautiful National Heritage site next to Durham cathedral, but in the gritty north-eastern town of Stockton-on-Tees, home to the world's first steam train and oldest railway station.
In four years' time, the university hopes to have built up its Stockton campus to a total of 5,000 students, double the current number (as well as 15,000 in Durham itself), many of whom will be studying new subjects to address the region's skills shortages.
New buildings will go up. There will be a new law school, a centre for student services and the new structures will house the university's headquarters.
The new subjects could include film studies and environmental health, as well as architecture and planning, according to a strategy document for what is known as the Queen's campus. A Masters degree in music therapy is being proposed, along with programmes in health in Africa and in nurse management.
"We don't want to get a lot bigger, certainly not in Durham," says Professor Chris Higgins, the vice chancellor. "The aim is to have the same quality of education in Stockton as Durham but do things we wouldn't do in Durham."
The reason he wants to deliberately expand the Stockton campus is that it is not growing organically and its students don't do as well as the undergraduates on the Durham campus. Only 60 per cent get firsts and 2:1 degrees, against 80 per cent in the city-centre campus. Moreover, the students who come into the Queen's campus are not as qualified as those entering the Durham campus. According to a university working group, student satisfaction as measured by the student experience survey has been declining on the Stockton campus.
"Work is urgently needed to underpin the existing provision in terms of the student intake, and the quality of the student experience offered on the campus," says the working group's report. "It remains the view of all those most closely engaged with the campus that growth in student numbers, and of appropriate infrastructure and facilities to support them, are essential to the future of the campus."
Higgins is hoping to tap into some of the £150m "University Challenge" money that is being earmarked by the Government for areas where few people go to university. In March this year, ministers announced that 20 new university towns would be created in this way – and soon after, Darlington was mentioned as a higher education "cold spot" that might benefit from having a university campus.
A national consultation is now taking place as to how best to organise the bidding for these sites.
In recent weeks, Teesside University has revealed plans to expand in Darlington and has even appointed developers to put up new buildings. The completion date is 2009. Higgins, however, believes it would be a mistake to create a small university centre in Darlington and that Durham's Stockton campus, which is only 20 minutes' drive away, could do the job better.
"A campus with only 400 to 500 students can't be a campus in my view," he says. "We believe you need a critical mass of people to provide the facilities and environment with access to sport and culture for decent higher education. To have a lot of small campuses is inappropriate."
At the moment, Durham is talking to Teesside about developments in Darlington. "It's very early days," says Higgins, without elaborating further.
Professor Graham Henderson, Teesside's vice chancellor, was more open. Durham had approached them, he said, about a joint bid for University Challenge money but Teesside's plans for Darlington were well advanced and being funded separately. "We want to start building by Christmas," he says. "We have a design, a site and agreement with developers."
Moreover, he points out, Teesside is tapping into a market where people are in work, want part-time courses and are unprepared to travel. Durham's clientele are full-time students who maybe do need access to the sports and cultural facilities Higgins mentioned. Part-timers do not need that kind of provision, he argues.
So, although Henderson says that he is open to persuasion by Durham and that a joint bid with Durham might work for some expansion later, it would probably not suit Teesside now. In the meantime, Higgins will probably have to tap his own sources of funding for the expansion of Stockton.
At the moment, the 2,500 students on Durham's Queen's campus, many of them postgraduates, study subjects such as business, biology and health. The first two years of the joint medical degree that Durham runs in partnership with the University of Newcastle – one of Tony Blair's new medical schools – are taught in Stockton to 100 medics before they head off to Newcastle for clinical training.
The teaching is very innovative, he says. A lot of it is done not by medics but by people from the social sciences, anthropology and the biomedical sciences, something that is very hard to do in a conventional medical school. "It gives the students a very different experience," he says. "That's partly why we get a lot of applicants."
If you're a doctor who doesn't necessarily want to be, say, a glamorous neurosurgeon, but instead wants to know more about the social side of medicine, you might opt to take your first two years at Durham University. It is in these social aspects of medicine that expert bodies such as the World Health Organisation believe we need to improve because advances in medicine and knowledge about diet and lifestyle are not reaching people in the poorer, less healthy regions.
You get the impression that Higgins would like to build up a medical school in Durham that concentrates on training doctors who understand the politics and economics of health but is prevented from doing so by the formidable logistics of securing medical training places from the Government and medical establishment. In the meantime, he is working with Newcastle and developing research at Durham in health and wellbeing through, in particular, the Wolfson Research Institute, which concentrates on health and is run by a social scientist, and through the nascent Centre for Arts and Humanities in Health and Medicine, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust.
"At the moment in this country we are too focused on the question of how you cure ill people, rather than how you stop people getting ill in the first place – or at least catch things early so that you can deal with them early," says Higgins. "That research brings in people from the departments of English, philosophy and health, which very few universities can do. But Durham can, and certainly conventional medical schools can't."
If Higgins can persuade the Higher Education Funding Council to finance more student places, he should get the expansion he wants and raise Stockton's game. But there must be a lot more discussion and planning before the university can produce a strategy to satisfy the funding council.
In an article last week ("Politics of charts and minds", 18 September) it was stated that a course in music policy was to start at Edinburgh University this month. This is not the case. The course is still at the planning stage.
A VC's life in brief
Name: Chris Higgins
Educated: Raynes Park comprehensive school, south London; Durham University, where his father was a maths professor and where he got a first-class degree in botany and did his PhD.
Jobs: Worked as a post-doc fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, then Dundee University as a lecturer, reader and professor of molecular genetics. Moved to Oxford where he was Nuffield professor of clinical biochemistry and then to the Medical Research Council at Imperial College, London, before returning to his alma mater as vice chancellor of Durham.
Likes: Durham, opera and cricket
Dislikes: technology that fails to do what it says on the tin; apathy.
Family: Has a partner and five daughters.
Current bedtime reading matter: Bill Bryson's 'Shakespeare: The World as a Stage'.
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