It was dark in King’s Cross as I took the first train up to CU Scarborough, Coventry University Group’s latest and fifth campus. 

Not so great expectations

As an East Yorkshire lad, I had vague memories of geography field trips about erosion, decayed Victorian splendour, empty harbours, gritty amusement arcades and scary older kids from rough estates. I knew nothing about either the campus or its parent institution, though I was looking at the data on the train up as I tinkered with my presentation.

Higher education has to be a key part of the plan for post-Brexit Britain. Universities get 200 mentions in the 255 page industrial strategy, and 166 mentions in the 178 page Social Mobility Commission (SMC) state of the nation report, though neither align much. Scarborough doesn’t feature in the former, but gets sixteen mentions in the latter. Some of it makes for grim reading, as the SMC report says:

The country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. London and its hinterland are increasingly looking like a different country from the rest of Britain. They are moving ahead, too many rural and coastal areas and the towns of Britain’s old industrial heartlands are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially … The growing sense that we have become an us and them society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation. The analysis in this report substantiates the sense of political alienation and social resentment that so many parts of modern Britain feel. Whole tracts of our country feel left behind, because they are. Whole communities feel that the benefits of globalisation have passed them by, because they have. Whole sections of society feel they are not getting a fair chance to succeed, because they are not … places like Scarborough … are becoming entrenched social mobility coldspots.

It makes me feel guilty. I left the region aged 18 and can’t yet see a way back, despite the house prices, pace and noise of East London where I have made my home.

The Scarborough local authority area is far from the worst performing, but on some measures faces real challenges. It has more part-time and fewer full-time jobs than the British average. Qualification levels are lower than national averages. Of the 107,800 Scarborians, only 36% are in the most senior occupations, almost ten percentage points below the national average. This contributes to gross weekly pay being £89 below the national average. I wondered what the government’s decision to freeze benefit payments for another year, announced just 21 minutes after the royal engagement, means up here.

In the SMC report Scarborough comes 295th out of 324 areas on a range of social mobility metrics for different stages of people’s lives, among the worst or ‘coldest’ 10%. Although it comes 30th from the bottom overall, it is 10th worst for school-level social mobility indicators, especially at primary level and younger.

The SMC highlights that Yorkshire and The Humber has the lowest primary attainment and the second highest pupil–teacher ratio (18.2) in England. Under twenty per cent of pupils on free school meals in Scarborough achieve the expected standard at key stage 2. Secondary teachers are 70% more likely to leave the profession in deprived areas.

Although there are decent post-16 options, with Scarborough TEC and other colleges, as well as a regional National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP), the closest other HE institutions are all at least forty (very hilly) miles away.

Brexit is referenced seven times in the industrial strategy and only gets a single mention in the SMC report. However, Alan Milburn was more frank at the launch, saying that although he “thinks Brexit is a mistake, the causes are real, people are being left behind”. 60 of the 65 social mobility cold spot areas voted for Brexit, including Scarborough.

Whether it’s the industrial strategy’s more judgemental tone, that some areas are “lagging behind”, or the Prime Minister’s language about people who are “just about managing”, it is clear that Scarborough is one of the places where modern Britain isn’t working for everybody. I hurtled North with a bunch of questions, un-contextualised data points, and prejudices.

Reality check

On arrival, I’d made sure I had time to walk through the town and take in some of the sights.

Since the 17th Century this ‘queen of watering places’ established itself as a popular spa town, claiming to be Britain’s first ‘true seaside resort’, for a nation increasingly enjoying more money and leisure time. However, two world wars, changing tourist tastes, and global competition for traditional industries had all created hard times.

I was hugely impressed with many of the buildings, the infrastructure and the town planning.

The Victorians and those who had inherited their splendour since had done a good job, it was more decadent than decayed, with much recent and sensitive renovation. I looked at the grand houses and low prices with a covetous London eye.

The handsome art gallery features a great collection, from smuggler wrecks to seaside adverts.

Next door is Woodend Creative, a ‘co-working space for start-ups’ as they say in Dalston, or ‘office’ as they say in Scarborough, probably. Towards the beach, the Rotunda, built in 1829 as one of the world’s first purpose-built museums, boasts a local plesiosaur skeleton, the Bronze Age ‘Gristhorpe Man’, and a geology wing sponsored by Shell.

Dominating the seafront, the Grand was ‘the largest hotel and brick structure in Europe’ when it was built in 1867.

I was greeted at CU Scarborough by two of the team. Craig Gaskell, the founding Provost (and now Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor), has been involved in the area for over a decade, heading up the University of Hull’s former campus in the town. And Gareth Smith, the Head of Student Affairs, was one of the first team members to join Craig, before the new campus was built. I listened with envy (again) about the even lower house prices in nearby Malton, where he had moved with his family from London. Although the train service currently sounds a bit irregular and slow, an ‘express’ is apparently coming soon, illustrating what those ‘infrastructure investments’ mentioned in the industrial strategy might actually mean.

First launched in September 2015 in temporary offices at Woodend Creative, CU Scarborough opened its brand new £14m campus the next year. It’s a bright and airy space, with a well-stocked library in the foyer, a loan laptop vending machine, a modern and flexible design, and murals of Scarborough on the walls. There’s also plenty of room to grow beyond the current number of students, already at 350.

In my presentation to staff, about the policy context and Coventry University’s position in various three letter evaluation exercises, it was obvious that it is committed to teaching first and foremost. It has a Gold TEF award and is building research capabilities over time through key staff appointments.

CU Scarborough is also part of a £50m ‘Education and Sports Village’, with a University Technical College on one side, and an impressive sports facility on the other that includes an olympic pool, a huge gym and full-sized astroturf football pitch, home to Scarborough Athletic FC. Useful neighbours to have.

The case study on CU Scarborough in the Social Mobility Commission report highlights its modular and flexible approach to teaching. It offers full-time, part-time, evening or, one-day-a-week study, as well as access courses, foundation degrees, HNCs, HNDs, BAs, top-ups, two-year degrees, degree apprenticeships and from next September, accelerated degrees. There are multiple entry points in the year, as well as the option to move between London, Coventry, Scarborough and online. Rather than a cut and paste approach, the delivery model, courses and content are all tailored to Scarborough’s unique needs. Craig emphasised that the Coventry University Group structure gave them genuine autonomy to do this, which may not be the case for many other institutions. There are lessons here for other providers, about committing to a new place for the long term, building strong relationships, and tailoring the offer to meet current and future needs.  

I quickly learned a lot about the realities of the town. Yes, there were challenges, especially with schooling, but the unemployment rate is actually 3.7%, below the national average of 4.6%. Scarborough has also risen 17 places on the SMC social mobility index since last year, and attracts the largest private investment in the North of England.

The borough has the most tourist visits outside London. On the way to lunch I had the second-highest-grossing Ask (restaurant) in the UK pointed out to me, situated in an old, almost Mediterranean-looking building, by a marina full of leisure and some fishing boats. The (only slightly gritty) amusement arcades bring in serious cash apparently, which must be a lot of two-penny coins. There are new residential, retail and leisure developments. A branch of local theme park Flamingo Land (another blast from my past) is to be built on the site of the Futurist Cinema. The Futurist, built in 1921 and host to acts including The Beatles, has been derelict since 2014, prompting puns about the end of time and a brighter future.

Thousands of jobs are being created in the area. McCain (of the chips) has a national HQ, there’s a new £2.3bn potash mine (featuring a 23-mile conveyor belt running through a tunnel to the coast), a major cyber-security employer, and the largest amount of housing development in Yorkshire. CU Scarborough has also developed a range of health and social care courses, in partnership with the local NHS Trust and the council. There will also be demand for education courses, if people can be encouraged to teach in the local schools. The team talked knowledgeably about links with businesses and the Local Enterprise Partnership.

I now had a new and more accurate picture of the area, one that was cautiously optimistic, and involved an innovative higher education provider. I could see how better educational opportunities for locals, combined with bringing new people in to study, could encourage graduates to stay local and boost the local economy, creating a virtuous circle.

Away from work, local attractions include world-class mountain biking, good coffee shops, the mighty moors, a micro-brewery, fish and chips (of course), a 7,000 seat open-air theatre, and even decent surfing. I can personally vouch for the first four, though certainly not the latter one, the cold swimmers I spotted on the beach looked far braver than me. Student accommodation starts from just £50 a week.

This is about more than being an ‘anchor institution’, with the grand, static, superiority that implies. CU Scarborough seemed to be working hard at being a pro-active neighbour, adapting to serve its local community sensitively, being clear about its mission, sometimes helping others without direct benefit to itself, and at times allowing others to take the lead.

What would help?

The first issue seems small and now appears to be fixed, but could have been big for CU Scarborough and other branch campuses. UCAS’ new search function had apparently been incorrectly listing how several branch campuses appeared to students searching for courses, only showing institutions’ main campuses, not where courses are actually delivered. This is a particularly critical function at this stage of the recruitment cycle, and meant other services that use UCAS data, such as Unifrog, were misleading too. Since my visit, it looks like UCAS has addressed this issue – they explained to me that their data reflects what providers give them and that most students search by course and subject, not location first. However, who knows what – if any – damage was done?

In terms of attracting and retaining graduates (and staff), having visited many of the regenerating seaside resorts of Kent in recent years, I wondered if a big-name arts institution, an arts festival, or a cluster of hipster eateries in the pier would help. Or, whether Scarborough’s regeneration and gentrification would follow a different, less-bearded route.

The SMC report also highlights that councils can do better. Even with swingeing cuts and less affluent populations, some local authorities seem to be able to do better on social mobility than others. It sounds as if CU Scarborough is helping the local council to improve even quicker, tailoring courses to its needs.

Scarborough is one of DfE’s twelve Opportunity Areas. Craig sits on the partnership board and even hosts the staff on-site. However, it doesn’t sound like there’s that much for HE to actively ‘do’ at this stage, despite responsibility for universities recently moving into DfE and an ambition for all DfE programmes to be joined up in Opportunity Areas. This policy would appear to need some more joined-up thinking.

As with Grimsby just to the South, some people may see Teach First as a solution, but it hasn’t reached Scarborough yet, and even if it does will need to overcome long-term challenges about attracting, developing and retaining good staff in such places. Another solution is to improve the quantity and quality of locally-trained teachers, or to develop those already there, something that the industrial strategy’s £42m Teacher Development Premium aims to help with.

Beyond the growing pipeline of school staff coming through CU Scarborough, I wondered how else partnerships with local schools and colleges could be developed, whether through volunteers, governors or sponsorship. Milburn said at the launch “we need more people in HE … but the vocational offer is often just not there yet”, how should institutions such as CU Scarborough work with other providers, and what incentives does the government need to create?

The area seemed ripe for one of the “local industrial strategies” described in Greg Clark’s longtime-coming masterplan, but just how much new money or tangible help will be available? As Milburn pointed out there’s a “flood of global liquidity currently … now’s the time to borrow to invest”, but that feels like a long way from current government thinking.

Any EU money lost from areas such as Scarborough post-Brexit needs guaranteeing quickly. For example, this might include the CU Scarborough and European Regional Development Fund-backed ‘Digital Advantage Grants’, of up to £5,000 (60% match-funded by the business), for local businesses to get consultancy support from a digital specialist through the university. At a recent meeting of HEFCE’s Local Growth Academy, the assembled audience from universities, the NHS and local authorities were told that the Shared Prosperity Fund (which is due to replace EU funding for poorer regions), while sounding ambitious, lacks basic information such as how much it’ll be, from when it’ll operate, and how the money can be accessed.

If CU Scarborough’s international recruitment ambitions are achieved, and government policy in that area improves, then it could do even more to help Scarborough catch up again economically, and fill back out socially.

That would require the government to offer a more holistic vision, one that understands that industrial strategy, social mobility and immigration policy are the three parts of the same puzzle. It also means spending more money in places like Scarborough and less in the South East. Unfortunately, that all feels unlikely given the politics in Westminster, a myopic focus on Brexit, and how incoherent government policy too-often feels on the ground. We have the education minister saying social mobility is her number one priority, then it only getting a single mention in the industrial strategy, with the promise of a forthcoming “plan for improving social mobility in England”, in the section about helping women, carers, disabled people and black and ethnic minority people in the workplace. This is complex stuff, but we need a clearer vision and smarter spending.

I left Scarborough and its new university impressed, hoping both could sustain the momentum, and wondering if there was actually a life for me outside London one day. I hope other institutions will send staff up to visit, we need the whole sector to be helping heat up every single cold spot, and it needs to be seen doing that important work.

5 responses to “How one university is warming a cold spot

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip to Scarborough Louis; it was where I grew up and left at 18 but still go back regularly. The arts is pretty thriving (visit the Stephen Joseph Theatre too next time) but I think what’s needed is a seriously big employer, or two, who can provide entry level but also senior jobs to bring skilled people back / retain them after graduation, and provide entry level roles too. I really hope the CU initiative can help do that.

  2. I still live in Scarborough although I have lived overseas then worked away on a three week rotation returning to my home back here. Architecture in the town is indeed stunning in places but poor in others. The town center is a sad place. I found your artical very truthful and refreshing to read. Scarborough certainly is not the beutiful place it once was, it is indeed being left behind due to transport links and poor job opportunities. Also only certain companies seem allowed or encouraged to invest. One would hope things improve soon.

  3. It’s interesting that this is a ‘cold spot’ that has had a higher education presence for many years. North Riding College was founded as a teacher training college after the war. In the 1990s they swapped validation from Leeds to York and then merged with Hull in 2000.

    So this is bringing a different energy, perhaps without any nervousness about local competition between sites – for example to start nursing courses there.

  4. Do you know what I’d like to see from a HE institution in Scarborough? I’d like to see something different than just training people for wage-slave jobs in industry. How about some humanities: History, Philosophy, English Literature, Fine Art, Music? The courses on offer from CU Scarborough are to me as depressing as the statistics you start out with.

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