'Brave and bold' Glyndwr vows to be open to all

Head says low fees and vocational courses will serve the students others ignore. David Matthews reports

September 1, 2011

London Metropolitan University caused a stir earlier this year when it decided to undercut its rivals with average pre-waiver fees of £6,589 in 2012-13 and slash its courses from 557 to about 160.

The vice-chancellor of Glyndwr University, Michael Scott, has arguably made an equally radical move in Wales.

From 2012-13, Glyndwr will charge average fees of £6,643, ranging from £5,850 to £7,750, and every degree course will be designed at least in part by employers.

As Welsh universities are charging an average of £8,800 compared with £8,393 at English universities, its fee structure will make Glyndwr an even more extreme outlier than London Met.

Because Welsh government subsidies mean that only English, Scottish and Northern Irish students will pay the new fees, the main risk to Glyndwr may not be a decline in applications, but the perception that it is a lower-quality institution.

But in an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Scott argued that "the whole notion of university is changing".

The most important measure of Glyndwr's courses, he said, was the employment rate - whether employers are "satisfied with the product".

To this end, the university will begin collecting data on employer satisfaction with graduates five years down the track. Academic staff will also have to demonstrate that all programmes are "written and developed" with business and industry.

This means "fading out" pure subjects, including English, history and languages, and replacing them with vocational alternatives.

Each course will be given an annual rating of green, yellow or red based on financial and quality criteria, as well as graduate destinations and other factors. Too many red lights will result in courses being suspended. Last year, about eight courses were discontinued.

This does not necessarily mean a reduction in staff numbers, Professor Scott said, noting that levels had "plateaued" after three years of voluntary redundancy schemes.

He said Glyndwr's lower-cost, highly vocational model was based on the idea that university education should be "open to all".

More than a fifth of the university's young, full-time, first-degree entrants in 2009-10 were from low-participation areas in Wales, more than any other Welsh institution.

"What I'm interested in is widening participation in the true sense," Professor Scott said, arguing that this was emphatically not the same as "fair access".

Fair access may enable some poorer students to go to top universities, he said, "but what happens to the rest?"

"The problem in this country is we are still not catering for those students," Professor Scott said, adding that plans to allow universities unlimited recruitment of students who achieve AAB at A level were "about middle-class aspiration".

What he calls Glyndwr's "brave and bold" direction comes after a Higher Education Funding Council for Wales report in July warned that the sustainability of the university "looks challenging in the long term and is sub-optimal in terms of provision for NE Wales".

It put forward three options: a merger with the nearby University of Chester; a "strong structural relationship" with local further education colleges; or for provision to be managed by Aberystwyth and Bangor universities in a "regional group structure".

Professor Scott said various "aspects" of the options proposed in concert with other ideas might offer a solution.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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