Coventry University’s low-cost college focused on students with lower entry grades could become “more separate” from its parent in the future, allowing the university to become increasingly research-focused and continue its progress up the league tables.
Coventry University College, which charges fees of £6,500 for science and engineering courses and £5,500 for classroom-based subjects, has grown to a total population of 1,200 students since opening in 2011.
The college, operating as a private limited company owned by the university, is based in buildings on the university campus which it leases from its parent.
Ian Dunn, Coventry’s deputy vice-chancellor (student experience), said that although there was no plan for the college to apply for its own degree-awarding powers at present – it has used the university’s to date – that was “always a possibility”.
Such a move could “allow the college to simplify even further”, he added. “The university is really focused on teaching and learning…but it’s moving into a much heavier research intensity. The college isn’t [about] that. The college is a widening participation institution.
“I can’t think of a university that has a really brilliant widening participation agenda and is research intensive. They are just so challengingly different. To have that little bit more separation, within the same set of values, might well be a focus that works well.”
Mr Dunn noted the importance of league tables for universities (where entry tariffs are a factor in performance). Coventry University is 27th in The Guardian league table, he added, with “nine Russell Group universities beneath us”.
Mr Dunn was responsible for setting up the college and works closely with John Dishman, its chief executive. The college is “a lower-priced higher education offer that absolutely maintains the quality aspect”, Mr Dunn said.
Courses are offered in areas such as law, accounting, finance, tourism and marketing, as well as science and engineering.
If they are studying full time, students receive 20 hours of tuition a week, two hours of which are in a tutorial group of five. If they are studying part time, students can opt to study five days a week in the mornings or evenings, allowing them to balance work and study.
Speaking to a group of students at the college, they are enthusiastic about a model that allows them to balance work – or looking after her children in the case of one mother – while taking courses in law or computing. Some are in their thirties or forties; some with a previous disappointing experience of university study.
Others are younger. One student left school with no GCSEs, went into the army, completed an access course at the college and is now heading for St George’s, University of London to take a paramedic science foundation degree. He spoke about the extra support he had needed from his tutors at the college to adjust to writing essays. Although his experience had been overwhelmingly positive, he said that he had heard the institution referred to as “the ghetto college” by some in Coventry.
But Mr Dunn believes the college is a better bet than enrolling for higher education in further education or private colleges.
“We’re not convinced that’s the best place for most students to have their higher education experience – in the private or the further education providers…while there may not be research within the college, there’s research within the group [of Coventry institutions] and academic exchange between the two paths [university and college],” he said.
Asked why the college was launched, Mr Dunn said the aim was to “challenge our own thinking to see if we can offer [higher education] at a lower price”.
He added that the 2010 Browne review “suggested a £6,000 or £7,000 fee [for undergraduates] and that was uppermost in our thoughts at the time” (the Browne review recommended that a levy should be applied on fees higher than £7,000).
If the college is offering degrees at lower cost, does that mean it is paying its staff less than the university, given that staff account for the bulk of costs? Mr Dunn said that staff at the college are on “separate pay and conditions” packages from those at the university, although he added that in reality the “same levels of pay” apply across the two. But he admitted that pensions are less rewarding at the college, with staff and the institution paying into stakeholder pensions of the type common to private employers.
On interest from other universities in the model, Mr Dunn said: “We’ve had hundreds of visits…But not everyone is willing to take the risks associated with it.”
1,200 - the student population now at the university college
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