University status has given Britain confidence and recognition

When Charles Clarke allowed the creation of a raft of new universities, some feared these upstarts would damage the reputation of British higher education. Ten years on, the critics have been proved wrong

Lucy Hodges
Wednesday 14 October 2015 16:34
Many of the universities have excelled in the NSS, the student satisfaction survey
Many of the universities have excelled in the NSS, the student satisfaction survey

At the beginning of the millennium, Charles Clarke, as Tony Blair’s education secretary, did something bold. He created a whole raft of new universities to add to the 104 we had then.

This was controversial at the time, as received wisdom was that England had too many universities. Institutions that were already universities also didn’t like the idea of a bunch of upstarts – colleges that had not even been polytechnics – muscling in on their territory.

There was an outcry from established institutions and from the umbrella group Universities UK (UUK), which said that this would damage the international reputation of British higher education. But Clarke brushed all moans aside and carried on regardless.

University of Chester

And so it came to pass that nine new universities were set up in 2005, after a change in the law. We have got used to their names now – University of Worcester, Bath Spa University and University of Northampton, to name but three. In 2006, they were joined by two other institutions, Edge Hill and York St John, making 11 new universities in total. All their vice-chancellors have now become grandees, mingling happily with their former critics as members of UUK.

How have these former institutes and colleges of higher education performed in the 10 years since becoming universities? The short answer is that the majority have come on in leaps and bounds and have confounded the fears of their critics.

One, Southampton Solent, continues to languish towards the bottom of newspaper league tables, but its income has almost doubled in a decade and its vice-chancellor, Professor Graham Baldwin, says: “The first thing that university status has given everyone is confidence and recognition of the work we do. We feel we are part of the university sector now. That is really important if you are planning for the future. It has given us international standing and enabled us to pursue collaborations with other universities.”

Although they differ from one another, these new universities exhibit some similar characteristics. All except Southampton Solent had their roots in teacher training and have acquired research degree awarding powers. All had to earn university status rather than simply being given it, as the former polytechnics were in 1992.

Many have grown in student numbers; all have built striking new campus buildings; and all have larger incomes than they did 10 years ago.

In addition, some excel in the NSS, the student satisfaction survey, while one or two have seen their research income grow spectacularly as a result of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), according to Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University. Research income here has risen from £800,000 to £2.2m as a result of the REF.

No-one doubts that the acquisition of the university title was key. It put these institutions on a par with other universities and removed uncertainty about what an institute or college of higher education was.

The University of Worcester, which has almost tripled its income in the past decade, says the best thing is that people now want to associate with them. “Realising that we are a proper university means that people want to be in partnership with us,” says the vice-chancellor, Professor David Green. “They want to come and work with us and students want to study with us. Getting university status gave us the right field on which to play and the opportunity to score lots of goals.”

David Chesser, chief operating officer of York St John, a former teacher training college with Anglican foundations dating back to Victorian times, says: “Without doubt it has helped to make us more successful. It has given all the staff confidence and has enabled us to compete and create our own reputation.”

The change has fostered ambition at a critical time when new funding and market conditions are giving universities the chance to expand dramatically. The new universities have had the chance to create their own degree programmes and nurture research activity. York St John has established a business school. Chester has started up an engineering department. Worcester has diversified from nursing and midwifery into occupational therapy, physiotherapy and paramedicine and has introduced postgraduate courses such as its Physician Associate Masters for an emerging breed of healthcare professional. “It’s helped us to innovate,” says Green.

Getting the university title has been absolutely essential for Edge Hill in Ormskirk, Lancashire, which opened in 1885 as a teacher training college for women, according to its vice-chancellor, Dr John Cater. It was the Times Higher’s University of the Year in 2014. “That is a real demonstration of our progress,” he says.

Crucially, it has enabled them all to gain financial credibility and to construct fancy new buildings. Worcester says it could not have built the Hive, the first joint university and public library in Britain, unless it had been a university, nor would it have attracted funding from Sports England for its sports arena to accommodate wheelchair athletes as part of the 2012 legacy. “It’s enabled us to take on bigger, more purposeful projects which are more ambitious and have greater impact,” adds Green.

The University of Northampton has been the most ambitious, announcing plans to build a state-of-the-art campus, effectively to relocate its campus into the city centre. Much of the estimated cost of £330m was raised via a bond backed by the Treasury. “We have a good track record and are financially secure,” says Professor Nick Petford, Northampton’s vice-chancellor. “We have been posting surpluses since 2010 and earlier, and being a university has certainly helped.”

Some universities, such as Worcester and Bath Spa, which have been experiencing big rises in applications, are proposing to expand student numbers.

“We’re very popular,” says Bath Spa’s deputy vice-chancellor, Neil Sammells. “We don’t have the recruitment problems of many other universities.” Northampton, however, plans to keep student numbers steady, as does Liverpool Hope, a venerable institution dating back to 1844.

“We made a strategic decision not to grow unendingly but to be a university catering for a community of about 8,000 and to concentrate on scholarship and research-informed teaching,” says Liverpool Hope’s vice-chancellor, Professor Gerald Pillay. “We don’t want to lose the ethos of a college.”

University of Chester

The strategy has paid off. Liverpool Hope is in the top 20 of universities for the proportion of staff with PhDs. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, 55 per cent of the university’s academic staff submitted research, of which more than a third was rated as “world leading” or “internationally excellent”.

Far from damaging the global reputation of British universities, the advent of a new bunch appears to have burnished it.

Overseas student numbers at these universities has grown noticeably. The University of Chester, which was founded in 1839 by two prime ministers, William Gladstone and the Earl of Derby, has seen overseas student numbers rise from one to seven per cent. “We have targeted international students, especially those from the USA and Canada,” says Chester’s vice-chancellor, Tim Wheeler.

Chester also had a lucky windfall, being “given” by Shell for the price of £1 a £240m site in which it could launch engineering courses specialising in energy and chemicals. A total of 501 students began last year, the first year, rising to around 600 this year. “This was significant,” say Wheeler. “We were very fortunate.”

The new upstarts are doing well. Whether they will all be able to maintain this momentum in an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace is debatable. But Charles Clarke can breathe sighs of relief.

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