Six more join the elite club

Half a dozen new universities, the biggest expansion since 1992, will take the UK total to 116. There are accusations of dumbing down, but the upstarts say they'll bring fresh ideas to higher education. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

In the next few months, another six new universities will be created in the United Kingdom, bringing the total number to 116.

In the next few months, another six new universities will be created in the United Kingdom, bringing the total number to 116. That's the biggest expansion of the sector since 1992, when all the polytechnics, known as "new" universities, came into the fold.

Most of the lucky six that managed to jump through the hoops and to qualify for university status are busy commissioning new logos, ordering colourful new academic gowns and buying a mace, the decorative rod that will be trotted out on special occasions.

University College Chester, which hopes to become the University of Chester, has appointed the Duke of Westminster, the third-richest man in the UK, as its chancellor. He will be installed in a grand ceremony at Chester Cathedral on 18 September, in a week of celebrations culminating in a ball for the staff.

"Becoming a university will have quite a significant impact," says Professor Tim Wheeler, Chester's principal and the prospective vice-chancellor. "At the moment, people don't know what a university college is. But they do know what a university is. It will strengthen our ability to recruit students from overseas."

The creation of six new universities, which depends technically on Privy Council approval, will lead to inevitable cries that more means worse. But staff and students at Southampton Institute, which hopes to become Southampton Solent University, are confident that more will, in fact, mean better. Certainly, all six have acquired their own degree-awarding powers and emerged unscathed from the Quality Assurance Agency's scrutiny process.

Southampton Institute prides itself on being very strong on teaching and on helping students. "The research culture hasn't got a grip here," says Roger Brown, the institute's director. "I see us as a community university. We are quite ambitious. We want to establish ourselves as a leading university in the South of England which does well what it seeks to do. Now that we are a university, I think that we shall do very well against Bournemouth." That's a reference to Bournemouth University, along the coast, which offers a big range of vocational courses and which could feel the heat from an upstart such as Southampton Solent.

The creation of the six new "new" universities is controversial, not just because of allegations about "dumbing down", but also because other universities don't like the competition. The name a new university chooses can be contentious. Southampton Solent doesn't seem to be upsetting anyone, but Bath Spa University College, which hopes to become Bath Spa University, may have more trouble; Bath University up the road may be worried that the similarity in the names could sow confusion among potential students.

That is why Bath Spa is being cautious about its plans for becoming a university. "We have not decided to what extent we would like to rebrand," says Tessa Alton, the head of marketing and public relations. "If the decision about the name is not what we would expect, that would put us into a new ballgame."

Other colleges are simply being cool about acquiring university status. "We think this is a fair recognition of what we have achieved over a long period of time," says Professor Michael Wright, the principal of Canterbury Christ Church University College, a former teacher-training institution that has diversified strongly into health and nursing degrees. "I don't regard us as very different from a university as it is."

Liverpool Hope University College, which is soon to become Liverpool Hope University, takes a similar view. "We were founded in 1844," says John McCarthy, the director of marketing. "We're not a new kid on the block. We've been around longer than the University of Liverpool, which was set up in 1904.

We are not going through the same process that the polytechnics went through when they tried to reposition themselves. We want to carry on as we are, with the recognition and confidence that the university title gives us."

Southampton Institute, however, is using the opportunity to make a bit of a splash and to rebrand. It is commissioning a new logo to replace the ship, which looks a bit old-fashioned and doesn't say a great deal more than that the institute is by the sea and has a strong maritime flavour to its courses. To that end, it has spent three months researching and has consulted staff, students and the local community.

The hope is that the agency chosen to design the logo will convey the idea that it is a friendly place offering high-quality courses. Roger Brown is keen to model his institute on DePaul University in Chicago, which calls itself a community university and, like his own institution, is student-focused and vocational. He wants to link together scholarship, teaching and engagement with the local people.

His ideal activity for Southampton Institute is to get lecturers and students working together on a research project in the community, such as designing a questionnaire about the environment in the river Hamble. They then take that out to the people.

The result is that the students have produced something that counts towards their final degree mark; staff learn about developing questionnaires with undergraduates; research is promoted; and the results benefit the local community.

The strong student focus is apparent as soon as you walk into Southampton Institute. There's an office called Students 1st, which gives information and advice to the 16,000 students and brings together the university's and the student union's services. "It is quite a statement," Brown says. "We wanted to make students feel that they are at the centre of the institution."

Another innovation is Curriculum Plus, which aims to broaden what the students do. This gives them the chance to engage in community volunteering, to improve their computer or language skills, or to do sports coaching or work-based learning.

Southampton Institute is also doing its bit for the community by giving local scholarships to people in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight who might otherwise be deterred by top-up fees from getting a higher education. At the same time, it will be giving £250 accommodation vouchers to people coming from outside the area. And it is thinking about offering bursaries to EU students, who sign up in substantial numbers for its yacht and powercraft design course.

The new "new" universities will be good for higher education, Brown says, because they will bring in new blood. "It's important to prevent the existing universities from becoming too comfortable," he says.

The creation of the new institutions will also bring universities to a number of provincial cities, such as Winchester and Chester, for the first time. "That could have an effect on the local economies," says Patricia Ambrose, the chief executive of the Standing Conference of Principals.

A few more colleges of higher education are expected to join the burgeoning band of universities. They include Worcester, Chichester and Buckinghamshire Chilterns in the first tranche, and Edgehill, York St John and St Martin's in the next. After that, there's not expected to be much more expansion except via collaborations between further-education colleges and universities. That means that this is a historic moment.

'I have had a really good group of lecturers, better than my friends at redbrick universities'

Andrew Sexton, 22, is typical of the students studying at Southampton Institute. He has been engaged in a degree that is highly vocationally relevant - product design with marketing - and that is of value to the community. He has designed a product for his project that he is hoping will be bought by the National Health Service. It is a machine for dispensing alcohol gel to kill off bacteria on the hands which should therefore be useful in helping to get a grip on MRSA, the hospital super bug. "My project was about controlling infection in hospitals," he says. "I did a lot of research. I visited hospitals, talked to nurses, the NHS and the Patient Safety Agency that runs a campaign for the NHS called the Clean Your Hands Campaign. Their budget didn't allow them to get any three-dimensional work done. They couldn't get units designed, so I arranged that I would attempt to design the product they needed as an academic exercise."

The Clean Your Hands Campaign was training staff to use the gel via posters and badges. Sexton produced a machine that is eye-catching and aimed at visitors and patients in a hospital. When choosing what to do for his project he was keen to address a topical issue rather than design something for a commercial market. "I was keen to find a problem and try to solve it," he says. He is confident that his product will be a success. It has been sent to the NHS's purchasing and supply agency and Sexton has entered it for a competition. When he graduates this summer he will look for a job with a product design consultancy. He doesn't mind that his degree is from Southampton Institute rather than the shortly-to-be-announced Southampton Solent University because his lecturers have been so supportive, he says. "I have had a really good group of lecturers, better than my friends had who were studying at redbrick universities on huge courses," he says. "I am in a small group on first name terms with my teachers. They are friends rather than figures of authority and they have made this a great experience."