At the forefront of Paisley’s economic and cultural regeneration is its development as a major learning hub, discovers Ken Mann

Generations past marvelled at the ingenuity and entrepreneurialism of mills and mechanical engineering, Paisley’s twin signatures of industrial pride that sealed its international reputation.

But the 1980s and 1990s will be remembered as a chapter in complete contrast. Scotland’s largest town then had to endure the ignominy of a rapidly changing economic engine, one that it was ill-equipped to fuel. High rates of unemployment ensued, its often magnificent architectural fabric showing the obvious signs of reduced circumstances, its shopping streets typified by an almost deathly external pallor.

Reinvention doesn’t come quickly. Roll on to 2015, however, and evidence of Paisley’s commitment is already clear in its renovated historic buildings and ongoing modernisation. It is particularly keen to underline its position as a seat of academic learning and a town – indeed aspirant “City of Culture” in 2021 – very much open for business.  The trend is again upward.

Paisley’s growing credentials as a learning hub will be one of its key pillars of regeneration. The multi-campus University of the West of Scotland (UWS) – now located in four towns with Paisley as its largest campus base – is a clear contributor to this confident new era.

Professor Craig Mahoney, UWS Principal and Vice-Chancellor says: “Our University contributes more than £129 million to the Renfrewshire economy each year. As one of the key employers in Paisley, with a sustained track-record of producing skilled and work-ready graduates, UWS plays a vital role in the region. With a wonderful fusion of campus-based local and national students and an increasing number of international students we continue to enhance the diversity and vibrancy of the town.”

Paisley Campus is home to around 7,500 students. UWS has more than 1,300 European and international students, and around 100 European and international partners. The majority of these students are based at Paisley, bringing a new dimension to the town from a cultural and social perspective. Importantly, they spend in the local economy.

In 2013/14 an external study of the economic value of the University’s presence in the town indicated it supported 1,573 jobs in Renfrewshire. Mahoney is understandably keen to share the future vision of the University, with a strong link to Paisley’s renaissance as an important large town.

He reveals: “We are working to create a truly 21st century learning environment that will provide new opportunities to enhance our students’ experience; developing them as global citizens.

“As part of this, we commenced an £18m investment programme in session 2013/14 on building works to enhance our student facilities and improve our learning campus – this has provided employment for a number of local companies and people.

“UWS is extremely proud of the important role it plays not just economically, but also socially and culturally in Renfrewshire. Figures released earlier this year by Innovate UK, which manages the UK Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme, listed UWS as the second-most active knowledge transfer higher education institution in Scotland.”

It shows its contribution in other ways, working with local schools to encourage interest in higher education which ultimately stimulates potential for a higher level labour pool.

Last year an innovative project, in conjunction with Renfrewshire Council, allowed all of the local sixth year students – 1,200 in total – access to the University’s IT, library and sports facilities to give them a taster of university life at an early stage.

Science staff and students also provided mentoring for participating schools in Scotland’s first Mission Discovery event. Starting in 2014, it has just completed its second cycle.

Co-sponsored by UWS and organised by Renfrewshire Council and the International Space School Educational Trust (ISSET), it enables pupils to carry out research with NASA astronauts and trainers – genuine entry-level rocket science.

Paisley’s other academic institution is West College Scotland. Another multi-campus establishment, it shares the University’s association with ISSET, but can claim more down to earth achievement.

The College has an impressive footprint across the town, from its main campus to local community centres.

Audrey Cumberford, West College Scotland’s Principal and Chief Executive, says: “We see ourselves very much as a college rooted in our community and that means we have a big role to play in re-energising and regenerating Paisley.

“Yes, we make a major economic contribution to the town but we’re also very proud of our artistic and cultural contribution.”

She points to the success of the College’s innovative drama course, run from New Street in the town centre. 

The course is unique in that it is delivered in partnership with Sunderland University.

Last year, more than 80 per cent of graduates achieved 2:1 degrees, which was a higher rate than their peer group at Sunderland. Cumberford – who’s also the President of the Renfrewshire Chamber of Commerce – says such activity means the college is well placed to play an active role in Paisley’s bid for City of Culture 2021.

The college has also been working with Renfrewshire Council to provide traditional construction training programmes for the local communities of Renfrewshire, bringing desperately-needed skilled people to the sector and improving Paisley’s estate of historic properties at the same time.

The training includes traditional skills such as natural roof slating, lead dressing, bossing and natural stone work.

The initiative came about as result of the council securing funding to improve buildings of note in the town’s busy Causeyside Street area.

West College Scotland’s Head of Construction, Tommy Campbell, explains: “This programme has allowed young people to gain construction and employability skills to improve their employment prospects, with two students from the group gaining an apprenticeship with a local contractor.”