The importance of place: delivering skills for the people of Cumbria

06 Dec 2023

From her perspective as University of Cumbria Vice-Chancellor and Co-Chair of Cumbria LEP’s People, Employment and Skills Strategy group, Professor Julie Mennell writes on the significant role that modern universities are playing in addressing place and skills needs.

As a Vice Chancellor and Co-Chair of Cumbria LEP’s People, Employment and Skills Strategy group, I know first-hand what a significant role our universities fulfil, direct and through collaborative working, in addressing place and skills needs. 

In 2007 the University of Cumbria was established in one of the largest, most sparsely populated and rural parts of the UK, with a small population size (half a million), declining working age population, low HE participation rates, and five thousand 18-year-olds. In an operating context further challenged by its dispersed and poly-centric employment, skills and sectors’ landscape, cold spots of higher-level skills and labour supply, health inequalities, travel and affordable housing constraints. 

It was always going to be tough to establish a sustainable and successful university in Cumbria. Indeed, this challenge was exacerbated further following the removal of the student number cap, teacher training policy changes, the student fee introduction (and subsequent freezing), and the removal of the student maintenance grant and NHS bursary for nursing and midwifery students.

However, despite this operating environment and landscape, we are succeeding. We are transforming lives and livelihoods. We are bringing new talent and capability to and from Cumbria. We are embracing our civic responsibilities and our role in place vibrancy, attractiveness and ‘stickability’. 

We are doing this, by fulfilling the ‘why’ of why we were established. We are focused on the place, employer and sectoral needs of our region from advanced manufacturing, nuclear, supply chain and logistics, visitor and rural sectors through to health and social care, arts , education, professional services and STEM.

We are working collaboratively and strategically with our LEP, Chamber of Commerce, Local Authorities, Integrated Care Boards, Employers and Sector representative bodies to understand and address labour and skills needs –  into and throughout our workplaces and workforce. We are co-creating and delivering new programmes and routes into and throughout employment from boot camps, degree apprenticeships to master’s provision and collaborative research.

This is evidenced by our student population which grew considerably in 2022, and includes 46% of students studying off campus, and nearly two thousand degree apprentices learning in the workplace. We have students upskilling and reskilling through workforce development contracts with BAE, the BBC, Sellafield, Rolls Royce, the NHS, the Forestry Commission, DEFRA and Defence Medical Services. 

We are looking to the future and our region’s labour and skills needs. For example, this year marked the establishment of a new Institute of Engineering, Computing and Advanced Manufacturing and planning permission was obtained to develop a new University of Cumbria campus in Barrow, an industrial location of national and global importance with world-leading strengths in advanced manufacturing, sub-sea and renewable energy. 

This focus includes working with the LEP, Cumbria’s advanced manufacturing sector (across the full range of employers and types) and our FE partners to develop a skills pipeline from level 2 to address our considerable workforce development and labour supply needs. 

We are responding positively to the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan and in many ways. This includes a significant contribution to the apprenticeship agenda with over a thousand paramedic apprentices across seven Ambulance Trusts, over one hundred others studying across nursing and radiography (Cumbria boasts the first apprenticeship for radiography in the UK) and the creation of the Cumbria School of Medicine in partnership with Imperial College London. The latter will produce medical practitioners, from, for and into Cumbria and beyond, with a focus on general practice, public health and rural health.

As we look towards 2030, our role in and for Cumbria will intensify and impact further. We are playing a vital role and we are needed. With £66m from the Borderlands Growth Deal Initiative, Carlisle Town Deal and Barrow Town Deal to address place, skills and productivity needs across Cumbria and the Borderlands region, this is visibly recognised and reinforced.

Our new Citadels campus, The Carlisle Business Exchange Centre, and Learning Quarter presence in Barrow demonstrate the confidence and expectations regional and national stakeholders are placing in us to:

  • boost the vibrancy and vitality of Carlisle city centre and to improve skills and productivity in the Borderlands economy,
  • create more opportunities for people in Barrow and the surrounding areas to access further and higher education,
  • address sector and regional skills needs in Advanced Manufacturing, Computing (Digital and Cyber Security), Business Management, Project Management, and Supply Chain and Logistics,
  • ensure that our region and workforce is equipped to thrive. 

Our university is a shining example of the transformational role universities have on and for place, working strategically and collaboratively with employer, sector, local-authority, and education partners; and with a Towards 2030 Strategy and funding secured to deliver continued and long-lasting impact to our region, communities, and economy. 

Cumbria is but one example of a university serving its region, in a multitude of ways, to deliver benefit to individuals, place and the economy. 

Professor Julie Mennell is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cumbria