When it comes to Edge Hill, some people’s initial feeling might be that Ormskirk – a West Lancashire market town with a population of fewer than 30,000 – is a funny place to put a university.
Established in 1885 as a non-denominational teacher training college for women in the Edge Hill district of Liverpool, it moved to Ormskirk to seek more space in 1933. The institution remained women-only until the 1950s and teacher training-only until the 1970s, before expanding its range of subjects and gaining university title in 2006.
The road to Ormskirk offers superb views across Liverpool and its towering Anglican cathedral to the Welsh hills, but more crucially for Edge Hill the location provides the institution with some distinct advantages.
There is a “complete circle around us in which we don’t have competition”, said John Cater, Edge Hill’s vice-chancellor, listing a clutch of nearby large West Lancashire and Merseyside towns without higher education institutions. In terms of accessibility and commuting times, he added, Edge Hill is the “nearest provider for almost 1.3 million people”.
That may be partly why Dr Cater can point to annual application figures that have shot up from 4,500 to 23,000 in the past 10 years. Edge Hill was one of only four UK universities that had a rise in applications for 2012‑13.
Focused, not fearful
The emerging market holds no fears, said Dr Cater, who has led Edge Hill since 1993, making him the longest-serving current head of any UK higher education institution. Edge Hill is “focused on programmes which there’s market demand for – we don’t have extensive engineering faculties and the like”. It specialises in subjects that “perhaps the more prestigious universities in the region tend not to specialise in”, he said.
The university’s biggest focus in terms of student numbers is education and training for health professions, followed by teacher training. Then there are degrees in drama, dance, TV, film and production work – again, “the kind of programmes where we’re not falling over other universities, or highly prestigious universities, to supply those”, said Dr Cater.
One consequence is that out of 2,167 students who have accepted places for the coming year, 541 have A-level grades of ABB or the equivalent. “That might surprise a lot of people,” the vice-chancellor added.
He highlighted graduate employment figures that are the “best in the region by quite a decent distance” (only 5.1 per cent of graduates are out of work six months after leaving) and noted Edge Hill’s place in the “upper third” of universities on graduate earnings thanks to the focus on nursing and teaching.
Nationwide, Ucas figures showed a record number of students from low-participation neighbourhoods accepting places for 2012‑13.
However, Dr Cater said that in the first year of £9,000 tuition fees his institution saw a trebling of the number of students who accepted a place but then failed to turn up for the start of term – something the official figures may miss.
“What we found was that the numbers of UFs [students who accepted offers] who didn’t arrive last September was greater than it had ever been,” Dr Cater said.
The number of such “no show” students is typically about 35 a year at Edge Hill, but it rose to 121 in 2012‑13.
Was that down to a deterrent effect from higher fees? “Possibly,” Dr Cater said. “I think we do recruit, still, substantial numbers of students from those low-participation neighbourhoods…it may be perhaps that these individuals, their friends, their peer group, weren’t necessarily going to university.”
He added: “I think the only time we’ll really know whether there has been a social class effect of this is actually when we come to graduation.”
Edge Hill will open a new £16 million “Creative Edge” building in September – part of a wider £40 million development of the campus financed from cash reserves rather than borrowing – to house the media and computing departments. There will be TV recording studios that “mirror the facilities the BBC have got in Salford”, Dr Cater said.
Well placed for the future
Does a focus on public sector professions make Edge Hill vulnerable to government budget cuts and policy changes?
Dr Cater responded by arguing that “the one area in which the state has to maintain spending is going to be the health service”.
Meanwhile Michael Gove, the education secretary, is shifting teacher training provision away from universities into schools, with only universities rated “outstanding” by Ofsted guaranteed to keep their student numbers. Critics allege that Ofsted has treated universities harshly under a new inspection framework.
But Dr Cater said: “As long as there are outstanding providers in the university sector, there is no reason why we shouldn’t continue to be an outstanding provider.”