4 November 2016

Mansfield’s first-ever, large-scale university centre has opened its doors to students – and was immediately hailed as a “beacon of aspiration” for local communities.

The £6.5 million Vision University Centre, at West Nottinghamshire College, has been created to improve access to higher education (HE) and plug the area’s skills gaps and productivity shortages.

Part-funded by a £2.6 million grant from the D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership, the flagship facility means the college can grow its already-successful HE provision and work even more closely with employers.

As well as bringing affordable higher education closer-to-home, the centre will support employers by up-skilling their workforce, with courses designed around their needs, and create more higher apprenticeships.

Currently, the college has almost 450 university-level students on courses ranging from higher national certificates (HNCs) and higher national diplomas (HNDs) to foundation degrees and full-honours degrees.

In addition, it has 100 adult learners on Access to Higher Education courses, which prepare them for higher-level study, and a further 200 students working towards professionally-certified qualifications in accounting, personnel and development, marketing, and purchasing and supply, which they study on day-release at college while in employment.

The building, at the Derby Road campus, aims to accommodate an extra 600 higher-level students over the next three years including higher apprentices and employees attending specialist one-day masterclasses and professional development programmes.

College chiefs say the centre is needed to address the traditionally low rates of people in Mansfield and Ashfield progressing to higher education, while equipping employers with the talent pool to grow their business.

According to official labour market figures, the two communities suffer from high levels of low-skilled employment and less productivity per-head, with wages lagging considerably behind other areas of the D2N2 area (Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire) and the East Midlands as a whole.

College principal and chief executive Dame Asha Khemka said:

“This is a truly momentous occasion for Mansfield and Ashfield. Vision University Centre will bring higher education to people’s doorsteps like never before, while serving as a vital hub for businesses to access highly-trained talent or up-skill their current workforce.

“By inspiring people to become qualified at a higher level, we hope to bring more good-quality, well-paid jobs to the area, and boost productivity, which will benefit businesses, individuals and communities. The appetite is there – now we have the facilities to match.

“Having locally-accessible higher education has been a long-held community ambition, and bringing a large-scale university centre to Mansfield has been my mission since joining the college more than a decade ago.

“Everybody connected with the college is delighted this dream has finally been realised.

“This iconic centre will serve as a beacon of aspiration and is needed to address the traditionally low participation rates in higher education and higher-level skills.”

David Ralph, chief executive of the D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership, said:

“Providing access to higher-level skills for potential employees of the area’s businesses is vital for building the economy and job numbers, allowing all communities to share in prosperity.

“That is why we are investing significant time and resources in skills and training development, including through capital investment schemes which create leading facilities such as Vision University Centre at West Nottinghamshire College.”

Spread over three floors, the 2,173 sq. m building boasts state-of-the-art facilities to rival those of major universities including a Microsoft suite, science laboratory, 100-seat lecture theatre with dual projectors, surround sound and roaming microphone; seminar room, ultra-modern study spaces with table-top HDMI connection, allowing students to bring their own portable devices into college; and teaching rooms with 75” CleverTouch screens and ‘lesson capture’ play-back capability.

Designed by Manchester-based architects IBI Group and built by Wildgoose Construction, of Alfreton, Derbyshire, the building also has a learning resource centre with self-issue book-loan library facility, IT room, large atrium which can be used as study or social space, and a top-floor outdoor terrace providing views of the surrounding countryside.

The centre was immediately welcomed by higher education students, who began learning in the new facility this week.

Conor Rodgers, 18, from Ollerton, who is studying a HND in Interactive Media, said:

“I think it’s amazing. It’s such a great environment to be in and looks really professional.

“It’s good that there’s a dedicated area for university-level students to work and socialise in. As soon as you come here, it feels a bit more grown-up and has the look and feel of a university.”

Fellow HND in Interactive Media student Emma Drury, also 18, from Mansfield Woodhouse, said:

“It feels very professional and a lot more like a university. It has all the facilities that students need. There’s a Microsoft suite to do digital work, and a learning resource centre that has loads of books, so it’s a great place to study.

“You’d usually expect something like this at a university in a city rather than at your local college, so it will really change people’s perceptions.”

Access to Teacher Training student Heidi Barlow, 25, from Alfreton, Derbyshire, said:

“The new centre is lovely; I’m really glad I’m studying here this year and getting the chance to use it.

“It will make a real difference to people studying at our level, who are generally mature students. The university centre creates a different atmosphere for us to concentrate in.”

BA (Hons) Criminal Justice and Human Rights student Shane Draper, 23, from Rainworth, said:

“From walking in you can tell the whole building has been designed with higher education in mind. It’s a fully-immersive experience and everything is just perfect for what we need at this level.

“The lighting is great, the seating is very comfortable – all these things make a big difference.”

Lee Vernon, 23, from Eastwood, who is studying Access to HE, Business and Law, said:

“Everything is easy to navigate because it’s all in one place. There are more advanced higher education books available in the library, and we have smaller class sizes, which means we can have clearer discussions and all get our opinions heard.”

Fellow Access to HE, Business and Law student Georgina Wright, 20, from Mansfield, said:

“The centre is amazing. It’s exactly like a university, with all the resources and tutors to hand. I especially love the lecture theatre; it’s very sleek and professional.”

Nineteen-year-old Foundation Degree in Children and Young People’s Services student Jess Redfern, from Sutton-in-Ashfield, said:

“The new centre offers a slightly quieter, calmer environment to the bustle of the main campus, and the library is set-up with dedicated resources for higher-level study, which I really like.

“This marvellous new building will help shine a light on the fact you can study at university-level here in Mansfield.”

Building contractors return to their roots

Overseeing the construction of the university centre was a particularly proud experience for the most senior building contractors working on the scheme.

That’s because Wildgoose Construction’s contracts manager Gary Hallam, site manager Dave Hare and assistant site manager Dave Wright are all former construction students at the college.

Gary, 53, from Mansfield, studied a range of City and Guilds carpentry and joinery courses at the Derby Road campus between 1980 and 1984.

Dave Hare, from Worksop, and Dave Wright, from Farnsfield, both 45, also studied City and Guilds carpentry and joinery as classmates, progressing on to other building-related courses at the college, which they attended from 1987-1991.

Mr Hare said:

“It was nice returning to my educational roots and have the opportunity to put something back into the college where I learned so much.

“West Notts gave me the skills that have enabled me to progress in my career. I’ve obviously learned a great deal on the job over the years, but I was given a great grounding in the technical disciplines at college.

“It’s good to see how the college has grown – I’ve seen a massive change from when I was here as a student, both in the buildings and the facilities.

“You can really see where the money has been put into education to improve opportunities for everybody. It’s a wonderful facility.”

Vision University Centre represents the final stage in a £50 million investment in the college’s estate across Mansfield and Ashfield, aimed at transforming teaching and learning through the provision of world-class buildings and facilities. It has the same contemporary design of the rest of the Derby Road campus, which has undergone a multi-million pound transformation.

Also created as part of the scheme is a multi-use, floodlit outdoor games area adjacent to the centre, offering improved facilities for students while extending the college’s community sports provision.

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