Teesside's success was a testament to talent
IF you had told people just 25 years ago that Middlesbrough would not only have its own university, but that in 2009 it would be declared University of the Year by the Times Higher Education magazine, they would have given you very strange looks.
But that’s precisely what happened. Mind, back in the 1980s you would have got very long odds against it happening.
For the story of further and higher education on Teesside over the last century has been one of loads of ambition coupled with plenty of knock-backs.
It took Teesside 29 years longer than Sunderland to get its first technical college - Constantine - despite industries on the River Tees crying out for skilled workers. And later, after the Second World War, it missed out on the chance of a university college along the lines of those established in Hull, Leicester and Southampton.
Perhaps, the cruellest blow was coming seventh in the race for one of the second wave of post-war universities in the 1960s when only six were given the go-ahead. Places like York, Sussex and Lancaster beat Teesside to the post.
Perhaps the town grew too fast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a major manufacturing centre.
First called “an infant Hercules” by Prime Minister Gladstone in 1862, it was known as the “Ironopolis”. Could such a place expect to be a centre for broader higher education studies away from the direct needs of industry for technocrats? A role that Constantine College was largely serving already?
Historian JW Saunders lived through many heady days, first coming to Middlesbrough in 1952 - despite dire warnings from friends and colleagues that he was going to a cultural desert and to a town crushed in spirit by successive economic disasters.
His appointment as the first extension lecturer in the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Leeds, looked challenging. His job was to establish and run an outpost of Leeds University in Middlesbrough’s leafy Harrow Road in the suburb of Linthorpe, and try to fill some of the gaps in a town without a university.
Saunders not only stayed for several decades, but fell in love with Middlesbrough - observing at close hand Middlesbrough’s struggle to be accepted in the world of academia.
His own personal account, What Happened To A Town Without A University: Continuing Education In Middlesbrough, was published in 1983, and remains a very useful historical source.
Saunders believed there was nowhere else like Middlesbrough in Britain. The nearest equivalent was a Texan boom town. It was a town which, Saunders thought, had the potential to become the largest conurbation outside London by 2062. But its progress was being choked by the lack of a university.