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Rival told: keep off our patch;FE Focus

Andrew Mourant on how a college consortium is fighting Exeter University plans for a Cornish university

An alternative proposal to provide higher education in Cornwall was unveiled this week as Exeter University's efforts to establish a campus near Penzance falter.

A consortium of colleges and training groups in Cornwall want to set up a new-style university. They want Exeter University to keep to its own patch in Devon.

Exeter had to abandon plans for a pound;70 million campus on a 70-acre site at Trereife after the Millennium Commission rejected its funding bid. Exeter has now scaled its plan down to a pound;30m project and is seeking European Union funding.

But European cash will need to be matched pound for pound but so far Exeter has had promises of just pound;500,000 while the land alone will cost more than pound;1m.

This week Camborne-based Cornwall College issued a discussion document claiming that the county cannot afford to build and operate a campus-based university.

"The Exeter project is dead but nobody will admit it," says Cornwall College business development manager Martyn Oliver. "Penzance is at the end of the longest cul-de-sac in the country. The trend now is for students to stay at home - the university of the next century will be more dispersed. Given that, you don't build a campus in a cul-de-sac."

The document calls on Plymouth and Exeter universities and FE colleges to discuss an alternative university. Cornwall College claims that HE courses already based at Camborne - including the Cornwall Business School, Institute of Professional Studies and Institute of Health Studies - means that a university is already evolving.

There are deep rivalries in West Country higher education. Mr Oliver admits that Exeter and Plymouth are competing with each other. "We have 2,000 HE students on this campus, most doing higher national diplomas, and 90 per cent of courses are validated by Plymouth. When we became aware that Exeter was changing its plans from being an old-fashioned university to a vocational university, it upset us."

Cornwall College is campaigning for a dispersed university based on the model of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. It says that to upgrade existing facilities and create a new university centre would cost about pound;24m - "a low cost, low risk model".

Key subjects would include arts and media, science engineering and technology business and management, healthcare and social studies, education, and agriculture and horticulture.

Penwith council has backed the Trereife project, believing it will help regenerate the economically depressed west of Cornwall. But it has reservations.

"When Exeter asked us to buy the land on their behalf, it came as a surprise. Rather than having a substantial campus in one go, it's now talking about moving in phases, first relocating the Camborne School of Mining. It's a different scenario to the one mooted in 1995," said Keith Giddens, planning and economic development director.

Penwith has earmarked pound;1m to help develop the site but is wary about paying for the land. It plans to commission a study to see if the project will justify its expense.

Professor John Inkson, chairman of the steering committee set up to establish the Trereife project, denies there is a funding crisis or that Exeter's scheme is dying a slow death. "We are negotiating with a number of developers in terms of raising pound;10-pound;20m but I can't discuss that any further," he said.

"The pound;500,000 we've been promised by building and mining companies is a token of their interest. They tell us that as part of the whole project, we can expect considerably more.

"Cornwall College has only a minor HE provision. In its Green Paper, the Government has said it doesn't favour FE colleges developing into HE colleges. We believe a purpose-built campus is the best way of attracting HE students into Cornwall."

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