Higher education to arrive in rural Norfolk

Plans to increase university tuition fees up to �9,000 per year, the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and increasing competition for places has left many potential students thinking twice about higher and further education.

Compound these problems by living in a rural location and going to university can seem an impossible hurdle for some. REBECCA GOUGH visited a Norfolk high school that may have found a solution.

Methwold High School, a remote comprehensive in the heart of west Norfolk, is hoping to alter the way its rural community thinks of higher education with the introduction of a ground-breaking project.

Under the plans, headteacher Denise Walker will offer part-time degree courses, accredited by various universities, at her school near Thetford.

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It is hoped the scheme, due to begin in September, will provide a credible alternative for school-leavers and mature students in an area where higher education is often out of reach culturally and financially.

Methwold High serves the largest and most rural catchment area in Norfolk where there is considerable social, cultural and economic deprivation. Areas of north and west Norfolk have some of the highest NEET (not in education, employment or training) figures for the country, a high rate of teenage pregnancy and lower than average attainment rates at key stages four and five. Employment rates are high but most workers are on minimum wage and through research carried out by the school last year, it was found the number of pupils in year 11 whose parents who had gone on to higher education was zero.

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Discussions by the school with parents and students also revealed youngsters were deterred from higher education by the amount of debt pupils believe they may accrue and concerns over how they may be able to support themselves financially during a year at university.

Ms Walker said: 'Because we're so rural, plus increasing tuition fees and the loss of EMA and the subsidy for transport being reduced, it's going to be really difficult for children to access higher and further education. Also, if you're 25 to 30 and you live here, where do you go for evening learning?

'The biggest problem is lack of aspiration so anything which gives them something to aim for with real goals is a good thing. That's my most important aim really, as well as keeping really good people in the local area.'

What began as a simple idea to team up with the University of London's distance learning programme has expanded following interest from other universities.

A number of courses, which will have been selected for their relevance to the community, are now planned including a BSc in Business Administration from the Royal Hollow College at the University of London, foundation degrees in Leisure Management and Sports Science from Loughborough College, and an MA in Education from Anglia Ruskin University.

The latter, which is aimed at teaching staff, is already offered but will be expanded as part of the new programme. Talks are also ongoing about an agricultural qualification with Easton College. Both the Business Administration and Sports Science qualifications will begin in September while the rest are to be rolled out over the next year.

The result could be a whole degree course, studied full-time over three years, or part-time, for �8,000. Students would combine learning at home or online with lectures at the school by teaching or university staff or relevant members of the community.

One of the key players in delivering the project has been Dr Duncan Harris, former director of an MBA at Royal Holloway, University of London.

To deliver the degrees at Methwold, Dr Harris has set up a company that will be kept separate from the school but which can run the scheme efficiently. As somebody who lives in Norfolk, near Southery in west Norfolk, he is familiar with some of the challenges faced by rural communities.

'My concern was how somebody who might have the genuine desire to go to university, and have the intellectual capability, might then get frustrated by the economy of the situation, because it's not cheap,' he said. 'I was concerned how the young person might decide to go or not go, bearing in mind it's not quite the same as for the urban population where people may be more mobile. In rural areas people aren't as mobile in terms of their intention and quite a lot of them want to stay.'

Eric Macintyre , higher education manager at Loughborough College, agreed schools and universities were having to think outside normal educational boundaries.

'We're facing a challenging higher education situation at the moment with all the stuff about the fees for 2012, and those of us involved are having to look at new ways of working and new partnerships,' he said. 'I think this is something that could be replicated across the country if done right and partnerships done correctly.'

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that, to date, the whole concept has been established without a penny spent after applications for government funding were unsuccessful. All those involved have given their time for free.

It is hoped the courses will become self-funding when students begin to pay their fees, which they can do in stages. Despite a lack of money, the programme recently received a pat on the back from the government when Ms Walker and Dr Harris, alongside MP for South West Norfolk Elizabeth Truss, visited Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Willetts said he was 'delighted' to meet the group and added: 'This innovative project is very much of the type the business secretary Vince Cable and I wish to encourage as we work to enable greater diversity in higher education provision.'

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