I’ve come to NTU’s Mansfield Campus to speak to Sarah Mayfield, Head of Higher Education at the site - which is leased to them by West Nottinghamshire College as part of a unique partnership.
We meet up a few days after I've spoken to college principal Andrew Cropley, and it’s fair to say that they are both singing from the same hymn sheet.
NTU is here to help, she tells me . . . help people develop skills and get an education, to get better, more well-paid and more sustainable jobs . . . help businesses to recruit relevantly trained and qualified staff . . . help attract new businesses to the Mansfield and Ashfield areas . . . help communities to re-empower, to become prosperous again.
Sarah tells me: “It was part of our social mobility and levelling up programme - the concept was to bring higher education to the area, but also access to higher education.
“So even though NTU is only 15 miles down the road, we did see a bit of a barrier for people accessing higher education.
“Also, what we wanted to do here is make it more accessible, so it’s easier to apply, and all of the courses are vocational to help fill skill gaps in the area - working very closely with employers to make sure that what they need is what we deliver.”
NTU has invested £6.5m in the site - which was previously used to house West Notts College’s higher education, and there are ambitious plans to expand . . . not just in terms of student numbers, but in terms of what they want to offer.
I tell Sarah about a friend of my mother’s, whose daughter has just completed the nursing degree - going back to university after bringing up the kids . . . wanting to revisit a career after years of working in the NHS.
And she tells me it’s a common story, particularly with the nursing programme, which allows people to train locally, rather than having to travel to Nottingham or Sheffield, or wherever.
Education for someone with kids, someone grounded in a community, someone who can’t just pack a bag and move a hundred miles away . . . someone who lacks the relevant qualifications to even start a higher education course . . . well in those circumstances, higher education can be a barrier.
So the answer is to bring the education to them, to offer them skills that are genuinely needed in the local economy, so they can complete their studies and get a well-paid, interesting and stable job . . . so they can better themselves, enrich themselves, but also help reinvigorate local businesses and communities, help local businesses thrive.
“They are full-time courses,” Sarah says, “but they’re delivered over two days, so people with caring responsibilities, or if they need to work, then they they can do that around studying as well.
“It’s aimed at the local community, but equally nationally as well - we’ve got students from Ireland, London and Brighton, so we are attracting nationally. It’s very much a two-pronged approach.”
When I was speaking to Andrew Cropley a few days before, he told me that he thinks that Mansfield is, at most, four years from being a university town, and I think that’s realistic.
Mansfield District Council is very keen for that to happen . . . that’s part of its vision, and I can see, very clearly, that the foundations for that are already strong.
The £6.5m NTU Mansfield Hub already offers a range of courses - nursing, mental health nursing, education, criminal justice, working with children, business and sports science - they even have some Mansfield Town players on the programme.
You can even train to be an ambulance technician, with plans to expand to offer courses in construction and engineering next year.
They are also working with West Notts College to ensure that courses align - so you can join the college with as little as a Level 1 qualification, and progress all the way through with NTU to degree level and beyond.
“We opened in the pandemic, which wasn’t the plan,” says Sarah, “with the required number of students.
“We’re growing and we’re looking to grow even more - we’re working really closely with Mansfield District Council because their ambition is to be a university town, so we’re looking at how we can develop the town with them as well as looking at the education, retaining that talent so businesses can grow, and hopefully all of that will come together.
“We are being led by the community, so NTU hasn't come here and said, ‘this is what we do’ - we are absolutely the newbies here and we are being led by the community
“We’re trying to release that stigma of university, of 800 people in a lecture theatre, and that’s what universities do - it’s quite cold. Yes, we deliver higher education but we’ve got the whole business support angle as well.
“There’s really strong industries in Mansfield and Ashfield, but employers say they struggle to recruit employees - either in the area or attracted to the area.
“When we came here it was a natural fit for us, and we got a lot of buy-in from both councils and the local employers. Mansfield is close proximity as well, but it’s a world away from Nottingham.
“The demographic we have here is very different from wider NTU - it’s a more mature demographic here and very local, which is completely flipped from our other campuses.”