It seems something of a miracle that UCS is up and running already. Richard Lister, Director of Planning at UCS, was seconded from the University of Essex in 2006. In those early days, he looked out of his office window in Felaw Maltings right across the dock to an empty space. As we now know, the building is here - we sat in a lecture theatre listening to him - having opened in September last year. But more miraculous than the speed of building was what he called "the window of funding which we wriggled through." If UCS had been planned to start 6-9 months later it couldn't have happened; funding would not have been available.
He described many features of UCS which must be unfamiliar to those of us who only know about traditional universities. Put brutally, UCS is a 'start-up business'. It doesn't have room to gamble and it must fill its courses. It couldn't, for example, create a School of Engineering which would be prohibitively expensive. On the other hand its main science provision - and very successful - is related to health, which in turn links to sport and exercise.
One of the main aims at UCS is to "reduce the skills gap" in Suffolk where the take-up of Higher Education had been "not too bad" in Ipswich but worse in the wider county. The absence of a university in the county has made university education seem remote or unreal to many school leavers. So quite deliberately UCS is a county-wide institution - a structure not tried before in the UK. Apart form the 'HQ' buildings in Ipswich, there are other centres in Bury, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth (sic) and Otley, together with numerous smaller learning centres elsewhere.
At present there are ca.3,700 full-time equivalent students (part-time counts as half!) so as universities go it is quite small. Mr Lister would like it to grow to some 7,000 students within the next 6-7 years, when "Ipswich would be a real university town!" He thinks this would change Ipswich for the better, as has happened in Lincoln for instance. UCS's relationship with the Universities of East Anglia and Essex continues as before. Degrees are awarded by UEA and Essex although UCS owns the courses. Some courses could perhaps be developed jointly in future (Law, for example). He thinks that UCS will help to bring the other two universities together more and in the long run they could all grow so that East Anglia would be a powerful international player and able to compete at the highest level with the great American universities.
There is a considerable economic value to the town in many ways, despite the decentralised nature of UCS. It has been estimated that UCS is worth £35m to Ipswich, which could eventually rise to £l00m. Phase II on Orwell Quay will be the next part to be built. That should be ready by September 2010 or January 2011. And student accommodation for 400 is being built nearby in Duke Street.
A striking remark was that 40% of UCS students say they want to run their own businesses, so UCS aims to teach some of the skills of entrepreneurship. But in any case, as Mr Lister pointed out, employees of the future will need to adapt to a more flexible labour market.
Mr Lister had begun with a reference to The Ipswich Society's keen support of the fully fledged creation of a university in the town. Perhaps that's one reason why the attendance at this AGM was the largest for some time. It may have also helped that people hoped for a tour of the new building, which did follow even though the numbers and limited access made it difficult. But other opportunities will surely crop up. Finally, I'm sure every listener must have been impressed with Richard Lister's talk. UCS is fortunate to have such a good communicator, one with such enthusiasm and vision.
Nibbles and drinks were enjoyed by the many members who stayed to chat in the expansive entrance area of this landmark building.