Plans to establish new universities from a list of 27 areas of the country, have recently been revealed by minister for innovation, universities and skills, John Denham. The government wants to build up to 20 new educational establishments within the next six years, which could create up to 10,000 study places for students. All of the areas on the list are rural and in need of regeneration.
However, while the educational establishments will teach a range of degrees, they will not be qualified as bona fide universities, because they will not have their own degree-awarding powers, nor the approval of a privy council system. The ‘university centres’ will be a partnership of regional development agencies, local authorities and colleges.
The proposal, made as part of the “Universities Challenge” scheme that has been ongoing since March, is designed with several intentions. It is thought that creating new universities in regional areas will decrease the effect of the recession, as money will enter into the local economy that would otherwise not be there. The new universities can provide a much-needed financial boost to places like Harlow, Grimsby and Blackpool.
Another feature of the proposals is the increase in students that will be encouraged to go to university. Most significantly, the plans will increase the number of mature or part-time students, who often find it hard to travel to an ideal university of choice in the way that full-time undergraduates do. It is also thought that the scheme will benefit the wider economy. Economists have suggested that for every student in a town, one extra job prospect is created in the wider economy, to deal with student demands, for example, jobs are created in bars and clubs.
But there are criticisms of the scheme too, coming from a range of influential people. According to Martin Freedman, head of pay, conditions and pensions at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers: ‘Some of the 27 towns interested in setting up higher education centres already have successful further education colleges.
We don’t want these colleges and new universities to compete for students at each other’s expense.’ With the universities of Bath, Bristol and Exeter all so well established, for instance, it could prove difficult to attract students to a university centre in Somerset.
Similarly, the scheme could harm the academics too – where will these new ‘university centres’ get their staff from? Since 2003, 17 new universities have opened across the country, an average of over three a year. With plans for even more underway, there are fears that the traditional status of the university is being undermined. As Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) has said: ‘It is not a case of merely getting more people through an institution’s front doors and out the other with a piece of paper in their hand.’
Moreover, these plans are being drafted at a time when the government is already struggling to cope with the huge financial burden of educating students, despite recent news that tuition fees will be frozen for the next five years. In the light of the current economic climate, there seems little sense in investing huge amounts of tax payers money in a scheme that some have suggested is merely a distraction from the bigger issues currently facing universities. Sally Hunt offered the opinion that the UCU is: ‘a little perplexed that the government has chosen to make this announcement just a week after it cut financial support for students from next year’.