Campus close-up: Norwich University of the Arts

Award of university title will allow arts specialist to clarify its message in the global marketplace

March 20, 2014

“A great confirmation of the work we have been doing for the past 170 years.” That is how John Last, the first-ever vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts, described the day his institution officially became a university.

The Privy Council confirmed that the institution, formerly Norwich University College of the Arts, which was founded in 1845, had secured the university title in late 2012 after ministers relaxed rules that previously prevented institutions with fewer than 4,000 students from becoming universities.

“We were conscious that in other countries, specialist arts universities which are relatively small were quite well known and respected,” said Professor Last. “It was an anomaly that in England you needed to be very large or you couldn’t be a university. That wasn’t very helpful, and it didn’t reflect the quality of our work.”

According to the vice-chancellor, it was only his institution’s size that was preventing it from being recognised as a university. “We fulfilled the requirements of the research assessment exercise, we entered the REF [research excellence framework], we have very strong application rates and students do very well. The key things we are asked to do as universities we are already fulfilling.” These qualities were “a better set of things to concentrate on” than the size of an institution, or the number of courses it offers, he said.

One of the big pluses that Norwich can take from the university title is in the international marketplace. For international students, the university college title caused some confusion because of its lack of clarity, Professor Last said.

“It’s nice for staff and students to have the [university] designation and we are taking the opportunity to explain our new status to overseas students, who found the former name quite complicated and difficult to understand,” he explained.

Despite Professor Last’s assertion that size is not the most important thing, the university has set itself the target of more than doubling its student numbers, to about 4,000, investing £10 million in the process and upscaling from nine buildings to 11. The most recent building acquisition came earlier this month, when the university paid in excess of £900,000 to purchase the grade II listed Boardman House in Norwich city centre, which will be refurbished to accommodate the School of Architecture. The institution has also set itself a target of recruiting 10 per cent of its student body from outside the UK – something the prestige of being a university should assist.

“Having a mix of cultures, a mix of approaches to the arts, is very important to us,” Professor Last said. “We are about two-thirds of the way towards [the 10 per cent target]. It is about selectivity and appropriateness – we are anxious to make sure that it is the right students, rather than the number of students, which is the approach we take with UK students too.”

Norwich can afford to be somewhat selective about the students that it accepts. Last year, the institution saw a 17 per cent increase in the number of students applying for degree courses, and as a result it did not enter the clearing process. In the past two years, Professor Last said that the university had been “a little bit over” its student number cap.

“It’s a problem I am pleased to have,” he said, adding that he welcomed the planned abolition from 2015-16 of undergraduate quotas in England. However, in Norwich’s case he said that it would not simply mean that the university increased its numbers, as many of the institution’s programmes rely on access to specialist equipment and favour smaller class sizes.

“[We must] not become lured into creating a very large institution just because we could…so we will expand gradually, and with the intention more likely of introducing new subjects, rather than increasing the numbers on the courses we have,” he said.

Listen to the podcast interview with Professor Last

Long road: the 167-year journey to university status

The Norwich School of Design is founded

Approved to offer degree-level provision

First BA honours degree courses are offered, validated by the Council for National Academic Awards

Great Yarmouth College of Art incorporated into the school

First MA courses introduced through an academic agreement with Anglia Polytechnic

Incorporated as a higher education institution, renamed Norwich School of Art and Design

First research degree student registered for PhD study

Granted the power to award degrees up to master’s level and renamed Norwich University College of the Arts

Granted university title by the Privy Council, becoming Norwich University of the Arts

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