he University of Gloucestershire is famous for its discount scheme that knocks 20 per cent off the tuition bill of people who pay the entire £9,000 top-up fee up-front. When this was made public last year, the university was criticised for favouring the rich over the poor. It was contacted by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) and Bill Rammell, higher education minister.
"It seems ridiculous that somebody who is rich enough to pay will end up paying less for their education," said Gemma Tumelty, president of the National Union of Students. "It seems to fly in the face of what the Labour Party is meant to stand for."
The university was, however, able to reassure Offa and the minister. Far from being defensive about its policy, it is rather proud of its £1,800 discounts. Seventy students out of a total intake of 2,100 have taken up the offer to pay off their tuition fees for a three-year undergraduate degree in one go. And, contrary to what the NUS thinks, the policy does not discriminate against the poor, according to Professor Patricia Broadfoot, the vice chancellor.
"There's no evidence that it is entirely rich people who are taking us up on this offer," she says. "It's just people who want to manage their investment in a particular way."
Amazing though it may seem, some of the students paying off their tuition fees in one go at the start of their degree come from families with an income of less than £37,425, who are entitled to educational maintenance grants. The university assumes that they must have grannies - or other friends or relations - who are helping them out.
"I think this is a very interesting idea," says Broadfoot. "There's no compulsion on anyone to do it, but it offers students and their families a choice of how they want to fund their studies. Some people would prefer not to part with the money up-front and invest it to generate interest. Others take a different view."
Certainly, the policy helps the university. First, it encourages students to stay at Gloucestershire because they have made the up-front commitment. Second, it helps the university with its cash flow.
Universities have problems with cash because they don't receive the fees money from the Student Loans Company at the beginning of the academic year. They have to wait until February. That has meant some universities telling students that they can't have their bursary money until halfway through the year.
Gloucestershire does not have such problems. The discount scheme has meant it has enough money up-front to hand out bursaries to those in need when they arrive. "Our view is that, if we're going to help those students who most need it, we must do it in the autumn," says Paul Drake, director of student services.
The key thing for the Office for Fair Access is how much money universities are putting into the pockets of poor students - and Gloucestershire was able to reassure Offa that it gives those in need a generous amount. A student on the maximum entitlement, who comes from a home with an income of £17,500 or less, will be receiving £2,700 from the Government and an additional 30 per cent from the university.
But it is not only on fees that the university is being innovative. The appointment of Patricia Broadfoot to the top job heralds profound change in how the university sees itself. No university in the UK can stand still in the new world of global and local competition. And Gloucestershire has particular problems with not being very well known.
Few people have heard of it outside Cheltenham, where three of its campuses are located. And even those who do know it are not sure what its unique selling point is.
The new vice chancellor, on her 105th day in the job when I interviewed her, says: "Historically we have presented a neutral portfolio, particularly a liberal arts portfolio - with some business. We have not historically been bold enough to say, 'We're so committed to x, that is what we're going to build in future.'"
All that is expected to change. Gloucestershire is planning to become the greenest university in the country. It already has a reputation for sustainability, having been runner-up in The Times Higher Education Supplement awards last year. "The plan, given that we have the most sustainable buildings of almost any university and that we have research strength in our Countryside Community Research Unit, is to have a major suit in lifestyle and the environment in the 21st century," says Broadfoot.
The intention is to set up a sustainability institute for research, consultancy and short courses and to introduce a green theme into as many courses as soon as possible. The university also wants to experiment with paperless coursework and paperless committees.
Ever since arriving from the number two job at Bristol University, Broadfoot has been huddled with senior managers about the way forward. One of the university's distinguishing features is that it is the only university in Gloucestershire and it wants to cement that by building partnerships with local further education colleges and with local communities.
To this end it wants to tap into the desire of mature and retired people to carry on with their learning. The success of the Cheltenham festivals (of literature and screenwriting, for example) is testament to that. The university is planning a new Masters degree in screen production that links to the screenwriters' festival. The students will attend the festival, take the course and then contribute to the following year's festival. "That's an example of how we're trying to embed the university in the community," she says.
Gloucestershire is also looking at setting up new courses in sustainability science, wine studies, racecourse and stud management, green business and creative entrepreneurship - all subjects that exploit local potential and nurture the green/lifestyle brand. It wants to capitalise on the natural attractions in the county such as the Forest of Dean, the River Severn and Cotswolds and to look at the scope for new festivals such as a festival of spirituality or a green festival.
Broadfoot and her colleagues believe that the university can no longer continue to be focused primarily on full-time undergraduates. It needs to look for a broader audience in line with demographic change. The university calls this "all-life" or "all-age" learning.
"The assumption has been in the past that you get to 18, go to university, do your degree and that's it, you've got your education," she explains. "But in the future - and this is clear from the Leitch Review of Skills - people will do this is different ways. They might do a foundation degree or they might do a standard undergraduate degree, full-time or part-time or in bits. They might do it in two different countries or in different, more flexible ways, online or partly residential, and so on."
That will mean the university has to become more flexible by allowing people to study part-time or in short blocks or in residential summer schools. For postgraduates, it will need to lay on courses for people who are going to have to retrain two, three or four times in their lives.
"They will have to keep coming back to university for professional development and that, again, will have to be flexible, part-time and increasingly international. That's a big change for us. We have to change all our perspectives and systems to make them normal, rather than unusual."
The plan is to increase the postgraduate population by 25 per cent or more. Tapping in to the well-heeled forty and fiftysomethings in Gloucestershire, such as Prince Charles and his ilk could yield a healthy income for the university to burnish its offerings further. It is also planning to increase its overseas student numbers. At the moment, overseas student numbers are low, standing at about 4 per cent. The university expects them to grow by 10 per cent almost immediately, and to reach 12 per cent by 2009-10.
Gloucestershire only became a university just over five years ago, the product of a merger between two teacher training colleges with Christian foundations and the Cheltenham College of Art. It has grown hugely in a short time without thinking hard about how to make itself distinctive. Now it needs to fashion an identity to survive.
West Country lifestyle
1848 out of St Paul's and St Mary's teacher-training colleges and Cheltenham College of Art
Three campuses in Cheltenham include Regency and Gothic mock Oxford buildings; one modern campus in Gloucester; one campus in India Dock Road in London
Somewhat fuzzy but aiming to become the greenest university in the country
Hails from the West Country and avoids the bright lights, except for wine bars in Cheltenham - but that is expected to change to tap into the part-time market
Big in business, teacher-training and sport. Aiming to entice the older and richer learner (such as Prince Charles?) interested in lifestyle courses such as racecourse and stud management, green business and wine-makingReuse content