Business reluctant to fund new university

Businesses in the West of England want a university on their doorstep but expect someone else to foot the bill.

More than six out of 10 Wiltshire companies surveyed for opinions on plans for a new university in the county said a new local graduate pool would be a considerable help in recruiting high-quality staff.

But only one in 10 questioned in the study by Bath University school of continuing education said they would commit any money to such a project.

The results are all the more disturbing since the survey covered mainly larger employers in Swindon. It suggests that industry - despite its resistance to levies and high taxes - still expects the state to pay for training.

Private sector reluctance to provide finance seems to dictate that expanded higher education in Wiltshire will come via its seven further education colleges, rather than a new institution, the Bath research indicates.

The enthusiasm for a new university was greatest among the county's student population - 89 per cent of respondents were in favour. Yet there were few takers for the concept of remote electronic study. Face-to-face learning was the preferred medium.

Wiltshire's senior education officer, John Surowiecz, was unsurprised by the report's findings. "Most firms would probably regard the provision of higher education as primarily the responsibility of central government," he said.

"I think they are being realistic - I would be reluctant to make an open-ended commitment. If local firms could see some flesh on the bones of the idea, they might be more willing to commit themselves."

Only 331 - 14.7 per cent - of 2,250 businesses approached responded to the survey, with just over 30 willing to put money into a Wiltshire University project.

No project money has yet been forthcoming, but National Power has seconded Reg Fahey from its management team to the Wiltshire Training and Enterprise Council. Wiltshire TEC is linking two schemes: one based in Swindon, tilted towards the needs of local industry, and the county council's higher education steering group.

"I believe that until the project is better defined, companies will be hesitant," said Mr Fahey. "We have engaged a consultant to draw up a much more precise specification of what a new university will look like."

"We have lots of gaps that need to be blocked, and there are worries that the quality may not be there."

With government funding uncertain until Sir Ron Dearing reports, Wiltshire's chief education officer, Dr Lindsey Davies, is urging caution.

"Any model for the development of higher education must be realistic and based around developing current provision at FE colleges in partnership with universities," she said.

"A new university based on the traditional campus is not worthy of consideration. Separate projects in Swindon and Wiltshire need to converge to avoid duplication of effort and wastage of resources."

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