Course Vacancies: Lure of a successful image - Karen Gold asks why polytechnics are changing the letterhead

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The Independent Online
WHEN Dorset Institute changed its name to Bournemouth Polytechnic two years ago, applications shot up at once by 55 per cent. The question 30 polytechnics, newly-named as universities this summer, are asking themselves is whether their name change will have the same astonishing effect.

And if it does, do they want it? 'Most of our courses are massively over-subscribed anyway,' points out Christopher Price, director of Leeds Polytechnic - one of the last five polys still awaiting official approval for a name change from the government ministers who make up the Privy Council.

The worry at Leeds is that when it eventually becomes Leeds Metropolitan University, known as Leeds Metro, the increased interest among some potential students will be outweighed by uncertainty among others.

'At least at the beginning there will be a university name that nobody has heard of,' Mr Price points out. 'People will be saying, 'Is that a real university?' We also suspect that some people feel polytechnics are more userfriendly; they come from a background where the word university is very daunting.'

So why change? Polytechnic staff all over the country point out that their degrees have been checked by outside experts for years to make sure they are the same standard as university ones. The problem is making potential students and employers believe it.

'I think it will help students looking for jobs,' says Mr Price. 'And it will make a difference over the next decade to those who still have the assumption that universities are better than polys.'

For anyone going through clearing at the moment, the key questions are likely to be: what is this poly called now, and if I go there in the autumn will the name make any difference?

Most of the new names simply swap 'poly' for 'university': Kingston, Sunderland and Huddersfield universities are easily remembered. A few have gone for a complete mouthful: the University of Central England at Birmingham looks good on a certificate, but sounds like an electricity board when shortened to UCEB. Only Leicester Polytechnic has gone for complete metamorphosis: De Montfort University, tested by market research, sounds classy but could be anywhere.

By the time students arrive at these new universities, the lacquer should be dry on the new coats of arms, the newly-designed degree robes furred and tasselled, and the switchboard operators faultless.

But the inhabitants are the first to admit that these changes are purely superficial. 'In the short term there will be no changes at all,' says Leslie Wagner, vice-chancellor of the University of North London.

'We are a university, but we stick to our mission of providing the best education for the widest possible clientele. If you knew about this place before, it's still the same sort of place.'

In the long term, he predicts changes will affect old and new universities alike: 'The system is changing so fast; there are new courses, there's expansion, new forms of teaching. Everything is changing all the time.'

Part of that change has been growing numbers at universities new and old. The University of East Anglia, for example, once attracted students because of its small, cosy feel. It used to predict that its student population would gradually increase by 25 per cent to 5,500 by 1994. This autumn it will pass that target two years early, with at least 5,700 students - and the new target total for the late 1990s is a massive 8,000.

Some classes at UEA are currently taught in storage rooms - and the situation is exactly the same in other universities and former polys throughout the country. Student numbers have risen nationally by more than 10 per cent per year in the last three years; the result is fewer tutors per student, overflowing lecture halls, queues for refectories and counsellors, and accommodation crises.

The situation of the former polys in this expansion is controversial. Some people argue that because the polys grew faster and earlier than the old universities, they have more experience using teaching methods which combine very large groups with individual attention - whereas the old universities will struggle with this over the next few years.

The alternative argument is that the old universities, having had more money per student, still have room for expansion - whereas the former polys were poorer quality already and will now get worse.

The quality almost certainly varies from one institution to the next, so if you are thinking about an old university, a new one, or one that is still called a poly, you should ignore the name and visit to see for yourself.