Campus close-up: Cranfield University

Head of postgraduate powerhouse Sir Peter Gregson wants to ensure doors are open to all

January 23, 2014

The recent decline in the number of UK students taking postgraduate and part-time courses is a matter of huge concern for the university sector.

However, for Cranfield University, which teaches exclusively at postgraduate level and which has many students who take courses while also in full-time employment, the issue is especially close to heart.

The Bedfordshire university welcomed a new vice-chancellor in August last year when Sir Peter Gregson joined after nine years at the helm of Queen’s University Belfast. The Cranfield chief voiced confidence that his new institution was well placed to weather the storm.

“We’re not immune to that pressure point,” he said of the falling numbers of UK postgraduate students, “and I wouldn’t want to suggest that it’s easy.”

Nevertheless, he expressed hope that the issue was being looked at, citing the Postgraduate Support Scheme. Under that programme, announced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in December, 40 universities will share a £25 million pot to develop ways to support taught postgraduate provision.

He said that Cranfield was using the “limited” funding to offer affordable loans to master’s students so as to attract those who might be deterred from studying at this level by financial constraints.

The initiative, the Cranfield Postgraduate Loan Scheme, was all about “making sure that postgraduate education doesn’t just become an opportunity for the privileged”, Sir Peter said. Up to 200 places are available over the two-year pilot, which, if successful, could help about 1,000 students over the next 10 years.

In general, he observed, there was scope in the sector for examining the principles of undergraduate student funding and “applying them to the postgraduate arena”.

“The [government’s] new framework for the funding of higher education really addressed undergraduates only – and actually only full-time undergraduates – so there are certain ‘second cousins’ in higher education,” he said. “One is the whole part-time arena, and the other is the postgraduate arena.”

A specialist university, Cranfield offers courses in eight areas: aerospace; automotive; defence and security; energy; environment; health; management; and manufacturing.

Because of the applied nature of its courses, forging strong links with business partners is central to Cranfield’s work – particularly given that in addition to its 4,500 master’s and doctoral students, it has about 20,000 students on professional development courses, many of whom are funded by their employer.

As well as a £320 million strategic partnership contract with the Ministry of Defence, the university works closely with a list of companies that reads like a Who’s Who of industry, including BAE Systems, Jaguar Land Rover, Airbus, Boeing, Unilever and Shell.

In its work with Rolls-Royce, Cranfield developed a new coating for turbines in aircraft engines that helped to cut fuel consumption by 1 per cent. “That, over an engine lifetime, is the equivalent of 14 metric tonnes of CO2 being saved,” Sir Peter explained.

Its programmes may promote strong ties to industry, but they pose a challenge when it comes to creating a healthy gender balance. Although about half of Cranfield’s students come from abroad, making it one of the most internationally diverse universities in the UK, only 23 per cent of its total student population are women.

“We of course as a university don’t have as diverse a community as we would like,” Sir Peter conceded, adding that promoting a healthy gender balance was “at the heart of what makes me tick”.

As an area where lessons could be learned that might increase the number of women pursuing careers in applied sciences, he pointed to the work of the university’s International Centre for Women Leaders, which conducted research that helped to improve female representation on the boards of the UK’s biggest companies.

“It’s certainly the case that if you’re in certain subjects you are at a disadvantage [when it comes to attracting female students],” he said.

“But there is a lot that one can do in an institution to make sure you are continuing to grow the talent pool from which you’re selecting. That’s…absolutely embedded as a priority here at Cranfield.”

In numbers

4,500 students from 100 different countries. 750 doctoral students. 3,600 master’s students.

Click here for a full podcast interview with Sir Peter Gregson

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