AN MP and business chiefs spoke of their disappointment last night (Thursday, January 23), after a bid to set up a North-East college for would-be engineers was rejected.
The proposal for a university technical college (UTC) in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, was designed to plug a worrying skills gap in the area.
Headed by the University of Sunderland, the plans are backed by Hitachi Rail Europe, which is building its train-assembly factory in the town.
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But the bid missed out yesterday, even as the department for education (Dfe) gave the go-ahead for six other UTCs across the country.
The Dfe refused to discuss its reasons for rejecting the Aycliffe application, or even confirm that it had been knocked back.
However, The Northern Echo understands Dfe ministers were not convinced it was ready to back, despite private support from Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin.
Another wave of UTCs is expected in early summer, prompting Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson to strike an optimistic note that the scheme was far from dead.
Mr Wilson said: “Obviously, I’m disappointed, especially when we had the support of the secretary of state for transport and the railways minister.
“It has not been approved now, but I want to continue to work with Hitachi, the University of Sunderland and the department for education to ensure it goes ahead.
“It is absolutely essential for the long-term economic development of the area that we get the UTC.”
That message was echoed by Darren Cumner, Hitachi’s manufacturing plant manager, who said: “We believe a UTC is an ideal opportunity to attract young people to technical and engineering professions from an early age.
“We will continue to explore all avenues of interesting young people in a technical career choice.”
UTCs are modelled on 1940s technical schools, providing extended work placements and core GCSE subjects to improve skills.
The University of Sunderland and Hitachi are keen to open one an on annex on Aycliffe Business Park, accepting up to 600 students a year.
They hope to be up-and-running next year, at a time when the region is expected to lose 8,500 workers to retirement by 2016.
The six go-aheads yesterday – in Bolton, Peterborough, Lincolnshire, Warrington and two in London – bring the total number of UTCs to 51, but none are in the North-East.
Hitachi plans to create 730 jobs when its £82m train factory opens in 2016. The UTC bid is also backed by while car chassis maker Gestamp, which wants to create 320 jobs.