Campus close-up: University of Roehampton

Expansion, optimism and the virtues of the US liberal-arts model are watchwords for vice-chancellor Paul O’Prey

February 6, 2014

Source: Jonathon Vines

Diversification and imagination: are key to Roehampton’s future strategy

“There’s a really fierce attachment to Roehampton. People even get tattoos with their college names…which does worry me! We’ve got that sort of loyalty.”

Paul O’Prey, vice-chancellor of the University of Roehampton, made the comment as he outlined to Times Higher Education how he feels his institution is well placed to compete, and even flourish, in the harsher market environment of UK higher education.

At the launch of the Roehampton Poetry Centre in December, Professor O’Prey made clear his institution’s determination to invest while other UK universities are contemplating retrenchment.

“[We said] now is the time to be imaginative, take some risks and diversify, which is what we’ve been doing,” he later told THE.

The Poetry Centre, which is led and chaired by renowned poets and new Roehampton professors Fiona Sampson and David Harsent, will be a research hub for the study of the literary form and the home of the newly created Roehampton and Ruskin poetry prizes and the quarterly journal POEM. It is one of the university’s many initiatives focused on diversifying its output.

“We’re launching new subject areas; we’re currently recruiting our very first cohort in accountancy and we’ve got two other subjects being launched,” said Professor O’Prey. “We’ve gone online [offering degrees] in quite a big way, which we’ve done in partnership with [private firm] Laureate. In the first year we had 500 sign up on just three programmes. We’re launching five more programmes a year for the next two years and, given the uptake we’ve seen, we’re very confident we’ll have 5,000 students. That’s a highly significant shift for us.”

Last year also saw the first group of students from the Glion Institute of Higher Education, a Swiss hospitality management school, arrive at Roehampton, where Glion has in effect set up a branch campus.

“These are students who train and then work in top hotels around the world. Employability rates are fantastic from that,” said Professor O’Prey. “We started with 50 students this year. We could have taken many more but for [the lack of] residences, but we’re pretty sure we’ll have built to 500 within five years.

“It’s a Glion degree, their branch campus is here, but for all intents and purposes they’re our students being taught by Glion. We provide all the things you expect a university to do except the teaching.”

He said Roehampton’s own international profile was growing and it hoped to increase its proportion of international students (including those from elsewhere in the European Union) from the current 15 per cent to 20 per cent over the next five years.

“Our major market is the US by a long way, and I think we’re quite unusual in that. In the US market, we’re seen as a liberal arts university; it fits their model,” he said.

Sprawled over 54 green acres of southwest London, complete with stately homes and a lake, and with one of its colleges overlooking Richmond Park, it is understandable that these comparisons arise. However, Professor O’Prey is quick to stress that the likenesses are more than superficial.

“We have an unusual commitment here to students,” he said. “We invest in student societies, whereas they’re often pretty organic at other universities. We want them to be successful so we resource them quite well. That’s the sort of thing that creates an atmosphere you don’t find anywhere else; it’s a real community.”

He added that the 140 nationalities on campus create a “real buzz” and prove there is “no identifiable Roehampton student”. The desire to build on this has seen the university invest £30 million in a new library, part of a £75 million revamp of the campus which will include four new halls of residence.

“Our number one problem is a lack of residences,” he said. “We’ll be creating 1,000 new rooms in the next five years. Six hundred on campus here, some in Vauxhall, some in Hammersmith. It’s a major capital investment and that’s key to our playing in the international market.”

While he acknowledges that Roehampton, like most other universities, is “managed in a business-like way”, he insists that it has “not forgotten what a university is about”.

“It’s not some sort of retail transaction,” he said. “I sat through a meeting with politicians who said ‘you have to treat your students as paying customers’. Well in actual fact our students don’t want to be treated as paying customers. That’s not how they envisage their education.”

Professor O’Prey said Roehampton was also “steadily building” its research culture, citing the two departments – dance and biological anthropology – that came top in the UK in the 2008 research assessment exercise.

“We’re ambitious [but] pretty clear that our teaching is absolutely linked to our research. Every member of staff, even top professors, teach students. We just believe that’s right.”

In numbers

£75m budget for current revamp of campus facilities.

1,000 new student rooms will be built in the next five years

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