The estimable Ursula Lidbetter recently explained in the Co-operative News how the Lincolnshire Co-operative had helped create what is effectively a new university in the city.
If anything, Ursula underplayed the key role her society played in the establishment of the University of Lincoln. Quite simply, the university would never have happened without the investment committed by Lincolnshire Co-op – not just the financial investment of a million pounds, but also the commitment of time and personal energy by her predecessor as chief executive, Keith Darwin.
Over the last decade, Lincoln has been transformed as a result of that dynamic approach shown by the society, other local business leaders and what was, in truth, the takeover of a failing institution, previously based in Hull, the University of Lincolnshire & Humberside.
The Lincolnshire Co-op, other businesses, the city council and the county council came together in the recognition that the local economy was in serious trouble. Traditional industries were declining, the labour market was low skilled, graduate levels were low (about 10%) and pay was at the bottom end. With a geographical position that was marginal, the city needed a boost. It didn’t need a first class degree to recognise that making Lincoln a true university city was the way to go.
Creating a new university from scratch would have been impossible, or nearly so. Persuading an existing failing institution to change direction and location was more realistic. The University of Lincolnshire & Humberside had financial problems and serious difficulty in attracting students. In part, this was because it was the second university in Hull, without a good reputation and with the additional marketing challenge of a very unattractive name.
Under the inspired leadership of a newly appointed Vice Chancellor, David Chiddick, the University of Lincolnshire & Humberside changed location and name. In fact, a market test asked the public for its opinion of various universities. The as yet non-existent University of Lincoln scored much more highly than the actual University of Lincolnshire & Humberside.
That University of Lincoln now exists. It took over rat-infested, rubbish-strewn, disused railway sidings in the centre of the city. Now it is a beautiful city centre campus, with a student population of nearly 10,000 undergraduates and post-graduates. It is one of the fastest improving universities in the country, highly rated in university league tables. A new engineering faculty, sponsored by Siemens, is the most recent chapter in the success story.
The economic impact on Lincoln from the direct spend of the university, from its students and through the indirect benefit of a more skilled labour market is around £200m a year. In the time since the university moved to the city, Lincoln’s economy has gained by between £1bn and £2bn.
It is reasonable to believe that none of this would probably have happened without the involvement of the Lincolnshire Co-operative Society and Keith Darwin. (Keith was made an honorary doctor of law by the university, under its previous name, in recognition of his role.)
Lincoln’s experience has not gone unnoticed. In my adopted home city of Derry, a group of people has come together to try to copy the Lincoln experience, calling ourselves U4D – University for Derry. Although there is a university campus already in the city, Magee College, there are only 3,700 students and most students originate locally. Courses are of limited value to the local economy, not providing the skills for the city’s employers or to attract high value inward investment. The economic impact of the campus is marginal.
With unemployment, economic inactivity and poverty at pretty well the highest levels of anywhere in the UK, Derry desperately needs a major boost. Traditionally, much of the local employment was in textiles – which has now moved production overseas to even lower cost centres. There has been some respite in recent months, with the weak value of sterling encouraging cross-border shoppers. And there is hope of greatly increasing tourism and leisure income for the historic city, its marvellous river and the other attractions.
Despite this, it is difficult to see these sectors as correcting the overall weakness of the city’s economy. Without a full-blown university presence, the city’s economy will not recover.
U4D aims to learn fully from Lincoln’s experience. We are so committed to doing this that we have met with Keith Darwin and others who put the Lincoln project together. We have also engaged David Chiddick to advise us, who has produced an excellent initial plan that we are determined will persuade ministers, senior civil servants and university leaders to accept our proposals.
Our situation is more difficult than that in Lincoln in one respect – we do not have the Lincolnshire Co-operative as a local business. In fact, as far as I know, we are the only region in the UK that is not properly serviced by any co-operative society, with the nearest retail co-op store the best part of an hour’s drive away.
Supporters of U4D include leaders of some of the city’s largest businesses – but in an area of economic weakness, these are not as large as a successful co-op society. However, Lincolnshire Co-operative can be assured that they have helped inspire community activity far across the other side of the UK.
* U4D’s website is www.u4d.eu.