Hull University wants to step up a notch or two in the league tables – perhaps it wants to be seen as an equal of the “Russell Group” of universities. Nothing exceptional about that, of course – it’s an ambition worth supporting. In a period of high tuition fees and the removal of caps on student numbers, the higher education sector is being marketised relentlessly. Students are getting picky about who should be paid to deliver their £9,000 courses. But should Hull’s decision automatically mean it has to withdraw from its Scarborough campus? They say yes, because they want to raise the academic entry tariff for students and they say Scarborough doesn’t fit the new criteria.
So far so unexceptional. But now let’s look at it from a Scarborough perspective. I have seen figures which show that the campus, with around 1,500 students is worth over £20 million to the local economy. This is something that needs to be fully understood, not just on the basis of what a complete withdrawal would mean, but what a different student profile in a new institution might mean. Would some as yet unformulated institution appeal to the many students we currently see coming to Scarborough from outside of the region and indeed overseas? You would think that our Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), with its duty to the economic regeneration of the area might take an interest in understanding the impact of potentially losing £20 million to the local economy, but it seems not. Its chair, Barry Dodd – who also chairs the Hull University’s Council – has told me that it’s not their responsibility to carry out an economic impact assessment. The university’s wage bill in Scarborough alone is £7.3 million. I would like to know quite how the LEP is going to ensure some other wage bill comes along that size.
We hear that student numbers here have been in decline, and therefore that justifies consolidation on the Hull campus. But once again, it is wise to look at the figures. There has been a decline in numbers in both Hull and Scarborough of about seven per cent since 2009/10, but it is marginally less in Scarborough. One is bound to suspect that Scarborough’s intake is being moved to Hull to shore up the core. Courses on the Scarborough campus have won national recognition for their excellence, but this clearly is not deemed sufficient to build on – to ensure that we build on what we have, rather than starting over again.
The higher education world is indeed changing. Take a train journey to London and you see station signs proclaiming that Doncaster is a ‘university centre’ as indeed does Peterborough. Offshoots of actual universities are popping up all over. Indeed, here in Scarborough we look set to get a ‘University Technical College’ – supported by Hull University. But I wonder whether all these manifestations of the word ‘university,’ contrasted with the direction of travel Hull University has set out on, doesn’t tell us something about the true meaning – and value – of the word.
We may live in a world of relentless change, but some change, let us remind ourselves can be ill-conceived and should be opposed. This is a case in point. There is no reason yet put forward which demonstrates that Scarborough cannot contribute to Hull University’s higher ambitions.