Since Craig Gaskell took over as principal of University Academy 92, questions put to him have, he said, included: “aren’t you making a lot of rich people even richer?” and “hasn’t the UK got too many universities already?”
But Dr Gaskell, who started in September, argued that the joint venture between the Class of 92 group of former Manchester United footballers and Lancaster University will be “opening up access for a demographic” that at present finds it “impossible…to consider going to university”, including potential mature students in work, people with caring responsibilities and disabled students.
There is a need for “genuine alternative higher education providers, not more of the same”, the former provost of Coventry University’s Scarborough campus told Times Higher Education.
UA92 will open the doors of its building in Trafford, Manchester to students in autumn 2019, offering degrees in business, media, psychology and sport awarded by Lancaster.
The Class of 92 part-own the for-profit venture – alongside their various property development schemes – with Lancaster, but it is Gary Neville who is most closely involved. The ex-England full back is “really active” and “I’m in contact with Gary all the time”, said Dr Gaskell, a former computer science lecturer at the University of Hull and Durham University.
The idea of putting “character development” at the core of UA92 stems from Mr Neville’s footballing experiences, he continued. Referring to the former Manchester United manager who schooled the Class of 92, Dr Gaskell said that what the group bring is not centred on their status as former footballers: “It is really the Sir Alex Ferguson resilience, work ethic that the Class of 92 bring. They could be ballerinas, if you like.”
He added that challenging the perception that UA92 is a “football university” will be “one of the toughest things for us”, along with ensuring that “the gender balance [among students] isn’t skewed by that”.
UA92’s partners include Trafford Council, Microsoft, KPMG, Trafford College and Lancashire County Cricket Club.
KPMG, for example, will “co-create a financial literacy component” to the curriculum, while the cricket club will be offering placements to students, said Dr Gaskell. The aim is to endow the sort of life skills that private schools give to their pupils, but for a very different social demographic, he argued. “Can you give [students] resilience, communication skills, team-working skills and the connections by working with our partners?”
Courses will be delivered in six-week modular blocks, with the sixth week devoted to teaching those “character development” fields.
As THE has reported, UA92 attracted controversy after the Department for Education allowed the institution to use the word “university” in its name when it does not meet the traditional requirements for university title.
The award of £3 million in public money to UA92 by the former Higher Education Funding Council for England – also criticised by some – is a “system investment” that means “you have to pay back” and the institution’s piloting of new ideas “has to be about learning for the sector”, Dr Gaskell said.
On the issue of UA92 being a for-profit venture, Dr Gaskell said he “had to square this ideologically myself”, having worked in the public sector, but has “not felt any pressure to be driving it as a profit-making entity”. Although he added that “you would expect the shareholders would like to get their cash back in due course”.