Campus close-up: Bishop Grosseteste University

Institution celebrates Anglican roots as it seeks to recruit students from beyond the local area

February 20, 2014

Amid the scores of UK universities blandly named after cities or regions, Bishop Grosseteste University is nothing if not conspicuous.

Haf Merrifield, the institution’s deputy vice-chancellor, cheerfully admitted that “no one can pronounce it and they think it means something rude”. But an in-house rebranding exercise conducted after the former university college was awarded full university status in 2012 rejected a change, instead adopting the lions from 13th-century Bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste’s coat of arms as its new emblem.

“To the extent that we have brand recognition, it is positive, so why change it?” Ms Merrifield said.

Vice-chancellor Peter Neil was recruited after that decision was taken, but, as one of the UK’s few ordained university leaders, he fully supported it. He said he was keen to celebrate the former teacher training college’s Anglican roots – which he saw as manifested in its strong emphasis on community and pastoral support.

Professor Neil also said he hoped that the links the identity offers to the global Anglican community will help Bishop Grosseteste recruit around 500 international students as part of its drive to expand its student base of about 2,000 full-time equivalents to around 5,000 total students within five years.

He also said he wanted to boost the number of UK students recruited from beyond the local area; currently, more than three-quarters come from within 50 miles of its Lincoln campus.

“People get a very good impression of our campus when they see it but my problem is that not enough come here from far afield, whereas more people would know about York St John [another recently christened university with Anglican roots],” he said.

“That is a model of where we need to be. [York St John’s] campus is similar but it is bigger, more international and with a broader course portfolio.”

Scrutiny of Bishop Grosseteste’s portfolio is a key element of the strategic review due to be finalised next month. The university has gradually expanded its offering beyond teaching to include related areas such as theology, English, history, drama and music.

But Professor Neil said he wanted a broader range – particularly given the uncertainty introduced by higher tuition fees and the abolition of recruitment caps.

One limiting factor is the proximity of the much larger University of Lincoln, with which Bishop Grosseteste has a “very clear understanding” over distinctiveness and cooperation. Hence, when Bishop Grosseteste recently introduced psychology, it was careful to distinguish it from Lincoln’s course by focusing on therapies.

Professor Neil said he was keen for Bishop Grosseteste’s portfolio to be “coherent” and focused around its “social mission” – although “you can make almost anything fit that”. He also wanted to ensure that there is a demand from local employers for any new courses. He hoped the university’s strong track record on employability would help it attract more part-time adult learners and further education college students seeking to top up foundation degrees.

Despite the university’s focus on small class sizes and approachable tutors, he was disappointed that its National Student Survey scores are only “rattling around the middle”. “A place like this needs to do better,” Professor Neil said.

He also expected all of its academics, within five years, to have a PhD and to be research active, in line with his view that a teaching-only university was a “misnomer”. He said he hoped to pick up some “good researchers” who, for strategic reasons, have been left out of their institutions’ research excellence framework submissions.

He said he was also looking to diversify the university’s income. A report by PA Consulting, which was commissioned five years ago by former vice-chancellor Muriel Robinson, said it was not making the most of its campus assets and advised it to hire a director of enterprise.

That person, Rob Jones, said his unusual membership of the senior leadership team helped him recognise that commercial activities must be fitted around the university’s core purpose. However, he has received colleagues’ full support for his rapid introduction of various ventures in “soft commerce”, such as conferences and events, a bed and breakfast, a cinema and a business incubation centre.

His next challenge is to establish more “embedded” partnerships with businesses and public sector organisations.

But doesn’t that puzzling name put some potential partners off?

“Three years ago I would have had a very different answer,” Mr Jones admitted. “But why do you change a name? Crudely, it is either because you are trying to move in a different direction or you are failing. We were neither.”

Ms Merrifield pointed out that a name change might be enforced if theology lecturer Jack Cunningham’s campaign for Robert Grosseteste to be canonised is successful.

“But we don’t want to start with an S,” she smiled, “because some [potential students] entering clearing look down the list [of institutions] alphabetically.”

In numbers

The institution’s target for the size of the student body within five years

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