UniQ is vital for all of us… not just students

UNLESS you live or work in Stoke or Shelton, or have cause to drive through these areas, you may not be aware of a remarkable transformation taking place.
If you say University Quarter to someone in this city you’ll be lucky if they have a clue what you’re going on about.
To be fair, why should they know or even give a monkey’s about UniQ – as it’s been dubbed?
As one person I interviewed succinctly put it: “Unless you’re a student, who cares?”
Well, we may not know or care much right now but I suspect that in 20 years’ time we will look back on these changes and thank our lucky stars they happened.
I’ve spent the last month or so interviewing academics, students, planners and people living in and around the development and have come to the conclusion that UniQ could be the single most important regeneration initiative to take place in Stoke-on-Trent in my lifetime.
Granted, you may not think that the competition for such an accolade is very stiff.
But, to me, regeneration is about far more than bricks and mortar – far more than creating new homes, businesses and jobs.
True regeneration is about raising the aspirations of communities and that can only be done through education.
Great strides have been made in recent years in terms of the performance of Stoke-on-Trent’s schools but it is fair to say that work remains to be done.
As a city we still lag behind the national average in terms of the number of school-leavers who go on to experience further and higher education.
It’s as though we haven’t moved on since yours truly went to sixth form college in Fenton back in 1988.
Too many of our young people leave education at 16 never to return, or drop out of further education at 17 or 18 only to be forced to re-train or skill-up again in their mid-twenties.
Forget that successive governments have attempted to massage the unemployment figures by persuading every man and his dog to go to college or university.
I’m not saying that everyone is cut out for earning a cap and gown but the fact is, here in Stoke-on-Trent, we still need to raise the bar.
For years now we have not been able to rely on our traditional industries to supply school-leavers with the mythical ‘job-for-life’.
Despite this, far too few of our teenagers stay on at college to acquire the kind of skills to make them attractive to employers as our city flounders around for a new identity.
So what is this University Quarter and how will it help to address these problems?
Broadly speaking, by creating one huge campus comprising a sixth form, a vocational college and a university, UniQ aims to place post-16 education slap-bang on our doorstep in the ST postcode area.
This means, at a time when everyone is acutely aware of the spiralling cost of a university education, the offer from Staffordshire University suddenly becomes more attractive to teenagers in Stoke-on-Trent.
Whatever their academic ability, whatever their ambitions, thanks to the University Quarter, our youngsters can now see a very simple pathway to higher education.
Whether they want to be a pilot, a poet, a physicist or a painter and decorator, they can get the qualifications and skills right here.
By working together and sharing knowledge and expertise, our two colleges and Staffordshire University will drive up the standards of post-16 education locally.
Suddenly, going to university won’t seem like an alien concept to 17-year-olds who are already mingling with undergraduates in Stoke and the south of Shelton – it will seem like a natural progression.
In addition, the regenerative benefits of the new buildings in the heart of the city are clear for all to see.
As well as providing employment for hundreds of local people, these ultra-modern educational beacons are a statement of intent.
Not only do they give the whole area a lift, they say that we take education seriously here in Stoke-on-Trent.
The UniQ project will ultimately cost £285m and, thanks to cutbacks, may take longer to deliver than was first hoped.
But – and I say this as someone from Stoke-on-Trent who never went to university – I think it is money well spent and will be well worth the wait.

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Never mind the election… what about our manifesto?

As Gordon Brown and David Cameron are busy peddling the policies they hope will propel them to 10 Downing Street, I thought I’d have a dabble at my own manifesto – specifically for North Staffordshire.

As Stoke-on-Trent celebrates the centenary of the federation of the six towns, what better time to take stock of where we are as a city and a region and plot a vision for a brighter future?

With a newly-arrived chief executive at the city council, a new face arriving in the role of the Stoke-on-Trent Central MP and a transfusion of new blood via the local elections, I think opportunity genuinely knocks for our neck of the woods.

Let’s hope we don’t ignore it.

This is my wish-list to drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st century…

*Forget parochialism and create a North Staffordshire authority serving nigh on half a million people – including the city, Newcastle, Leek, Biddulph and Cheadle and do away with the present, inefficient hotchpotch of local councils. Let’s face it, we’ve all got more in common with each other than we have with Stafford, Tamworth or Lichfield. I would suggest it is better to start speaking with one voice which would give us far more clout nationally. Such a merger would also enable us to get rid of many of the public sector non-jobs created in recent years. Perhaps then we could balance our budgets.

*Get serious about regeneration and deliver the key foundations to our economic recovery and future prosperity. How many times have we been shown plans of glass bottle kilns and the like which never come to fruition? Hanley desperately needs the long-awaited new bus station and the East-West shopping precinct so let’s ride a coach and horses through the bureaucracy and get them built. The University Quarter, or UniQ, and the Business District must become a reality rather than limping along as artists’ impressions. By the same token, our MPs and councillors must lobby like their lives depend upon in it in the coming months to ensure that, irrespective of which party wins the General Election, the hundreds of millions of pounds of funding currently transforming our estates via regeneration agency Renew North Staffordshire doesn’t dry up halfway through the process.

*Throw all our weight behind the Next Stop Stoke campaign to ensure the £60 billion high-speed rail network comes to North Staffordshire. We must ensure Stoke-on-Trent is selected as a stop on the flagship HS2 inter-city project or we run the risk of missing out on investment, jobs and tourism.

*If we don’t want to become a cultural desert then we need to stop quibbling about subsidies for The Regent Theatre and accept that if you want a top class venue in the city centre then, like other major cities, you have to be prepared to spend serious public money to help a private operator earn a crust. The benefits to our economy, the social life of the sub-region and the aspirations of future generations are there for all to see.

*Bring our home-grown football stars, role-model Olympic hopefuls and local celebrities together for a campaign to tackle North Staffordshire’s chronic obesity problem run through every single school in the city, Newcastle and the Staffordshire Moorlands. Tie this in with major renovation and promotion of our parks, public open spaces and excellent cycle routes to encourage more people to become active and fitter.

*Act now to capitalise on the huge public interest in the Staffordshire Hoard. As I suggested previously, let’s have a campaign to build a huge, great statue of a Saxon warrior visible for miles just off the M6 passing through Stoke-on-Trent and luring in visitors to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Let’s market ourselves as the home of the Hoard and completely renovate the venue to make the Hoard exhibition a tourist attraction of international significance. The time has come for us to stop marketing ourselves solely on our industrial past and find a new identity.