University chance 'must be seized'

SUFFOLK must seize what could be its final chance to gain a university, project leaders have insisted.Plans for the new £160 million university are gathering momentum and the county's education bosses hope it will be opening its doors to its first students in four years.

By Jonathan Barnes

SUFFOLK must seize what could be its final chance to gain a university, project leaders have insisted.

Plans for the new £160 million university are gathering momentum and the county's education bosses hope it will be opening its doors to its first students in four years.

The universities of East Anglia and Essex are behind the project, which would see a main campus in Ipswich and linked centres around the county.

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"This is the best opportunity we have ever had to deliver a university to Suffolk and it is the closest we have come to doing so," said Mike More, the chief executive of Suffolk County Council.

"We have got to give it our best efforts and that is why the county council has taken a key role – it has to be for the whole of Suffolk."

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Bryony Rudkin, leader of the council, added: "This is our one chance in a generation and we must make the most of it."

The universities behind the joint venture will submit a business case to the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) early next month.

Both Suffolk County Council and Ipswich Borough Council are at various stages of committing land to support the bid.

The plans include a main campus in Ipswich to accommodate both the university and a proposed £45m further education (FE) facility to replace Suffolk College. Much of the development will be based on the existing college site and land on the town's waterfront.

If the HEFC supports the plan, it will go to the Treasury, which will make a decision on funding next July.

That is the critical moment in the bid, as the next chance to bid for Government help would not be for another three years.

Mr More is the chairman of a stakeholder group, which was set up eight months ago to drive the promotion of the project.

It includes vice-chancellors of the two universities with representatives from the East of England Development Agency, the Learning and Skills Council, Suffolk Development Agency, Ipswich Borough Council and Suffolk College.

"The important thing is getting HEFC on board – unless they are persuaded nothing is done," said Mr More.

"We are in competition with other parts of the country, Swindon is also a contender. But the message we are getting is that we have been moving extraordinarily well and fast over the last six or seven months.

"We have created that momentum and we've got to keep it going. We want to make damn sure the Suffolk bid is the best bid put before the Treasury."

Mrs Rudkin said: "Nationally, this is the last chance to create new universities, as far as the Government is concerned.

"There is a national commitment at Government level at the moment to providing universities.

"Until Labour came into power there was not support for it and we need to take advantage of that national priority. Whatever has been said before, it has never felt as real as this."

Mr More and Mrs Rudkin said much of the focus of the new university would be on rural parts of the county, and providing wide access to higher education. That would include adults of all ages and from all backgrounds.

"One of the most exciting things is that we are trying to achieve something that is distinctive for Suffolk," said Mr More.

"Participation in HE in rural Suffolk is not particularly high. This is an opportunity to do something quite innovative that addresses this problem."

Mr More said there were no definite plans for where proposed rural centres would be, but added it would make sense that existing higher education facilities, such as Otley College and West Suffolk College, were involved.

Mrs Rudkin said the university would not only bring a jobs boost, but a "particularly powerful" boost to the economy.

She added it would attract talented people from outside the area, as well as giving a fresh option to those who lived in Suffolk, and would be very important to the region's major employers, such as BT.

Mr More said the issues of housing, transport and facilities for students would be major considerations if the scheme is given the go-ahead.

He added: "There is a brilliant quality of life in Suffolk, but we are below the average wage level and skills and attainment are not as high as we would like.

"We want to go forwards rather than backwards. We want to preserve that quality of life, raise skills levels and raise ambitions – we can't do that way we are going at the moment. Doing nothing is taking a step back.

"The university is not a panacea to problems, like losing young people to other parts of the country, but it's part of a package to raise aspirations in the county."

Mr More said the stakeholder group would continue to generate support for the new university and put pressure on the Government.

He added: "This is not in the bag. We must provide the most convincing case – an undeniable case."

James Hehir, chief executive of Ipswich Borough Council, said: "If everybody gets behind this project, it will happen.

"We are working on the regeneration of the waterfront, and other parts of Suffolk should also be seizing their opportunities.

"It's a very exciting project and it has worked up a head of steam."

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