Campus close-up: Southampton Solent University

Innovation in creative disciplines, high student employability and wide participation are strengths, says vice-chancellor Van Gore

January 30, 2014

It is almost a decade since the former Southampton Institute of Higher Education was awarded university status and Southampton Solent University was born.

But for Van Gore, the current vice-chancellor, who helped see through the changes as deputy vice-chancellor, its establishment in 2005 was just the start.

Professor Gore, who took over leadership of the institution in 2007 and will step down later this year, said during his period in office he had witnessed the “making of the university”, with student applications nearly doubling and the development of innovative courses in niche areas that have grown in reputation.

He said the old Southampton Institute had gone through some difficult times in the 1990s, which left staff with a lack of self-belief and uncertainty about institutional identity. Application numbers were also static, so in 2006-07, the decision was made to offer new courses and move into new areas, focusing on the creative industries. It is these courses in the creative disciplines that have been the “engine room” for the growth in student applications, Professor Gore said.

“These [programmes] were new to the sector in some cases and that is when applications started to take off,” he said.

One thing the Southampton Institute did have was a reputation for employable graduates and Southampton Solent has worked to build on this throughout the development of its courses.

This has involved embedding what Professor Gore called “real-world learning” into course curricula. This gives students the opportunity to be assessed on practical elements of their courses.

Students on the sports science courses, for example, get trained and certified to do blood testing as part of the programmes. “It is integration of theory and practice,” Professor Gore explained. “Our claim would be that we are not better than X, Y or Z [university] but that what we are trying to do is be different, and that is a legitimate kind of difference in what should be a strong and diverse higher education system.”

The new £9,000 fees regime has affected applications to Southampton Solent. However, Professor Gore said that things were “settling down” and the latest figures predict that 2014 applications will have recovered to 2011 levels.

More fundamentally, though, the changes have not had an impact on the widening participation agenda that is core to the university’s mission. At least 96 per cent of Southampton Solent’s students are from state schools and 70 per cent self-report that they are from families with no prior experience of university education.

The university is now embarking on a £100 million estate development and has acquired three acres of land adjacent to the campus. The first £30 million building will go up in 2015 and will include a state-of-the-art teaching and learning block complete with a space-age “capsule” containing an 80-seat lecture space that will float in the atrium.

Professor Gore said he suspected that the capsule, which to him represents the innovative and daring nature of the university, would be “quietly removed” once he had left. He said: “I hope not, because for me, the building needs to reflect the identity of the university.”

Professor Gore will certainly leave having made his mark on the identity of Southampton Solent; as well as the more fundamental changes he steered through, he had a hand in adding the spark to its logo during its transition to a university and more recently picked up a CBE in the New Year Honours for services to higher education.

“I do hope that the university will continue to do things differently,” he said. “There is going to be so much change that the successful institutions are going to be the ones that can embrace change and understand that they need to keep innovating.”

In numbers

98% of Southampton Solent students are from state schools
Note: 2011-12 figures

70% say they are the first in their family to enter higher education
Note: Internal Yourcourse survey 2013

holly.else@tsleducation.com

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