Campus close-up: ‘It didn’t make sense for Writtle to farm out degree-awarding powers’

For a small, specialist institution, Writtle College has sizeable ambitions

June 18, 2015
horse, water treadmill,
Source: Writtle College

You can lead a horse to water, and while you might not be able to make it drink, you can make it run on an aqua treadmill – at least you can if you are a veterinary physiotherapy student at Writtle College.

The four-year integrated master’s course in the subject is just one of about 50 higher education courses available at the Essex-based institution, which in March was granted the power to award its own degrees.

Currently, Writtle’s degrees are validated by the University of Essex, but from September 2017, students will be able to study for degrees awarded by the college itself.

Writtle currently has about 1,000 full-time equivalent higher education students, and about 675 studying further education courses. Principal and chief executive officer Steve Waite believes that degree-awarding powers will allow Writtle to become “masters of our own direction”.

“Essex has been very supportive, but the types of skill set you want to develop at the university…are quite different to what we want to develop here,” he told a Times Higher Education podcast.

Under the existing system, “validation and approval” for Writtle’s courses come “from an institution that doesn’t have expertise in our subject area”, he added.

Writtle is part of a network of former agricultural colleges “established to meet the needs of land-based industries, and those would originally have been largely in further education-type qualifications”, Dr Waite said.

“As those industries have developed, the science has become more applied, the technologies have become more demanding, so there has been a natural progression [and a need for] the development of higher education courses. Who’s going to provide this? A specialist college that has got the history of developing those skills…or a university that has never had a farm or managed a farm? That’s how we’ve ended up in this current situation.”

Walking around the institution’s 220-hectare estate on the outskirts of Chelmsford feels more like a visit to a zoo than a college. Writtle has – among countless other animals – 50 head of beef cattle, 85 pigs, an iguana, six bearded dragons, two pythons, 55 horses, eight goats and a chipmunk.

“Some other institutions try and teach about large animals when the biggest thing they have is a rabbit,” Dr Waite said during a tour of the college’s reptile house.

But Writtle is not all about vocational study. It currently has about 30 research students, and Essex will continue to validate research qualifications at the institution for the foreseeable future.

As a result of this activity, Writtle entered the 2014 research excellence framework, the first time it has been involved in such an exercise. Twelve full-time-equivalent members of staff submitted work across two units of assessment.

Although the institution finished near the bottom of the overall REF league table ranked on grade-point averages, Dr Waite said it was a worthwhile exercise and the outcome matched fairly well with his expectations.

“We believe that staff should, as a matter of course, be involved in scholarship and research, so it is useful to engage in a benchmarking exercise like this,” he said.

“If you take the agriculture and veterinary submissions, it showed that over 70 per cent of our outputs were of…international significance. For an institution that is the size of a small university faculty, actually the output was pretty good.”

Dr Waite hopes that over the next five years, he will be able to facilitate Writtle’s growth and move closer to his aim of it becoming the “leading national institution for land-based industries”.

A successful application for a change of title could see Writtle become “University College Writtle or Writtle University College”, he said – although a consultation would need to take place before any such modification could be made.

There are plenty of challenges ahead, though. The sector as a whole has to “be much more efficient” while delivering a “higher-quality product”, he said, “and for us as a small institution it is a real problem”.

“If you are a very large institution, you can have your teaching and learning centre staffed by a professor and several colleagues who are focused on how they are going to develop pedagogy and improve the delivery.

“If you are a small institution like ourselves, you don’t have…the additional cash to actually do that, so you have to be really clever about it.”

In numbers

85 – the number of pigs on Writtle College’s 220-hectare estate

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Article originally published as: ‘It didn’t make sense to farm out degree-awarding powers’ (18 June 2015)

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