What's Dundee like?" The question was casually put to me in the queue for the buffet at a recent consultation day. Not an easy question to answer. Chameleon-like? Schizophrenic? Dundee has had to reinvent itself constantly. Small wonder its slogan is "City of Discovery". Like an old variety hall trooper, it shrugs off bad reviews, slaps on the greasepaint, slips into a new costume and gives them the old razzle dazzle. Its past line-up is impressive.
Dundee - Whaling Capital. A fine tradition. Well er, no. We're a bit embarrassed about that part of our history now. Exit stage left and enter Dundee, City of Jute. A town where women were cheap labour and where men, the "pot-bilers", were left at home to mind the bairns. Women's lib started in Dundee. At the height of the jute industry the town had a greater number of women being arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour than anywhere else in Britain. There's equality for you. Exit stage hic left.
Enter Dundee, City of Jam and Keillor's world-famous marmalade. No, not a golden shred of that industry left in the town. Of the old `three Js' of Jute, Jam and Journalism learned in the classroom by every child, only journalism still thrives.
Mothballed in the dressing-room hang other costumes, some faded after a long run, others only half finished, and some which never made it past the audition; Timex, Ford, Silicon Glen, and Oil Capital of the North.
But soft! As we approach the millennium, a new identity is emerging. Enter Dundee City of Students. Dundee sashays onto the Scottish stage in fur-trimmed hood and goonie. With the recent explosion of our newest university, Dundee can now lay claim to the highest per capita student population. If you want to continue your education, you're spoilt for choice in Dundee. And despite jokes like "What do you say to someone with a PhD in micro-electronics?" the chances of employment for city graduates are significantly higher than anywhere else in the UK.
Now a backstage row has broken out in the town about funding policies, which, it has been claimed, favour "ivory tower" establishments to the detriment of the newer industrial universities. Anyone who works in a college of further education can appreciate the feeling of playing a Cinderella who never quite gets the new dress and never quite makes it to the ball. But, as the new universities seek to discover their own identities, they face another kind of discrimination. Students themselves can be such snobs. There is no doubt that the newer institutions will have to fight to attract students in a climate where, like designer labels, the kudos of the established institutions is something with which you can impress your pals.
There is no doubt that some of our college students are dazzled by the trappings of the university system, whether that is a traditional seat of learning or a new industrial university. Our awards ceremonies are being pulled more and more towards the university model and because of pressure from students. I think it is a wonderful idea to celebrate students' success as loudly and as joyously as possible but that does not necessarily mean we have to go down the cap and gown route.
Is it really just the old games strategy -"if you can't beat em, join em"? Isn't it time the universities, ivory towers or no, stopped being the stars of the show? We all have a valuable part to play. Funding policies should reflect that. Unless colleges can invest in the future to maintain quality and to continue to offer students qualifications they can be proud of, choice will simply be an illusion. Those who do not secure a place in the older universities or who choose a course available only in colleges of further education will perceive themselves to be second-rate students at second-rate institutions. In many ways, colleges are a step ahead of the universities in how to survive in lean times. Innovative programmes and flexible modes of delivery anticipate a future where education and training is increasingly part-time, day or block-release, and where life-long learning is the norm. It is a future where competition has no part, and co-operation and consultation between institutions as equals would ensure that students are offered as flexible a range of learning opportunities as possible. We cannot afford to maintain a pecking order.
Dundee's new role offers a unique opportunity for its institutions to work together and create new models. If they can, then perhaps a knowledge-based economy will provide a sound future and allow Dundee, City of Discovery, to hit the big time again.
A Big Mac and French fries please.
Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media communication at Dundee College