It's a Browne world, but there's still a place for us

Over the next few weeks, most universities in England will nail their colours to the mast and set their undergraduate tuition fees for 2012-13, when the cap will rise to £9,000. It will mark the culmination of six months of upheaval that started with Lord Browne of Madingley's game-changing report last autumn. Here, Simon Baker looks at five different viewpoints of how one institution, Bucks New University, has prepared for the new world order

March 10, 2011

Pessimists can't be disappointed: V-c's paradoxical confidence

For a vice-chancellor at a university that is set to lose most of its teaching funding, Ruth Farwell is remarkably optimistic. The reason, bizarrely, is pessimism.

As Bucks New University set down its five-year strategic plan last year, it left nothing to chance and took a downbeat view of the future of university funding.

"Because we made no assumptions on income from student fees and planned for significant (teaching grant) cuts, the situation could end up being better, somewhat ironically, than we actually foresaw from 2012 onwards," she said.

Professor Farwell still needed to use all her leadership skills to calm fears at the institution as rumours about possible mergers or takeovers flew around the campus in the aftermath of the Browne Review.

"I see it as the job of a leader to be positive and reassuring," she said. "I genuinely think there's a place for a university like this in terms of the things that we do and the stall that we set out."

She said Browne had left staff feeling "bruised" due to the suggestion that grant funding should continue only for science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine - of which Bucks New has very little.

"It appeared to devalue the kind of work that we do," said Professor Farwell, a mathematician herself who was a research Fellow in theoretical physics at Imperial College London in the 1980s.

But rather than force the university down a different route, she said the direction of reform had made it even more vital for Bucks New to focus on its strengths - delivering high-quality vocational and professional courses.

"We are also important to local people because if we weren't here, some of them might not study in higher education," she added.

Big deal is part of the furniture: Managers look for an edge in an increasingly cut-throat sector

Higher education in England may just be coming around to the idea of the student as customer, but for senior managers at Bucks New University, such thinking will be key to the institution's survival.

Most importantly, it will be vital to differentiate the university's offering from that of competitors - including private providers - that threaten to encroach upon the institution's traditional territory of vocational and professional training.

For Bob Cozens, deputy director of student experience at Bucks New, the answer is promoting campus life, particularly High Wycombe's new multimillion-pound Gateway Building with its state-of-the-art learning and sporting facilities.

"It will be difficult for many private providers to compete on those terms. What we have to do is make sure that our students know what they are buying into when they come here," he said.

Central to the strategy is the university's Big Deal, a student-support package that gives those studying at Bucks New free access to leisure events, competitive sport and other recreational activities - plus the opportunity to be paid as student representatives.

However, the managers are also keenly aware that parallel to this they must highlight the institution's unique selling points in terms of academic provision - and one area they are focusing on is industry links.

An example is the recent establishment of the National School of Furniture, where Bucks New and Oxford and Cherwell Valley College have linked up with firms and trade associations to provide education through to the doctoral level in a specific skill area.

"It is about building relationships with companies, educating their workforces and involving them in the process," said Nadine Bar, faculty marketing manager for design, media and management.

The university has also focused on narrowing its course offering to a core set of about 100 subjects, down from about 230.

Use your disillusion: Students given space to let rip

Evidence that students have been encouraged to voice their opposition to the government's reforms hits you as soon as you arrive at the heart of Bucks New University's High Wycombe Campus.

Plastered across one wall is a blood-red mural (above) designed and painted by a performing arts lecturer with the help of his students.

Featuring lyrics from a Bob Dylan song, it depicts two figures labelled "Con" and "Dem" standing over a patient marked "students" who is "losing" money from the brain. To the side, a graffiti "comment box" has been provided, giving everyone the chance to express their views.

The mural is an example of how students have been engaged by the university and given space to express their anger and disillusionment with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government's policies.

Tom Foy, president of the Bucks Students' Union, said he had been helped in his task by those running the university: students and staff attended the anti-fees protests in London, and he has been able to urge the vice-chancellor to use her position as chair of representative body GuildHE to make public statements about the reforms.

Now that the dust has settled on the battle over fees, at least for now, Mr Foy said the role and responsibilities of the union were clear - to work closely with Bucks New to make sure that the 2012 cohort are supported, practically and financially.

"I would probably say that it is the cost of studying that will turn out to be the major problem," he said, referring to the current debate over whether fee waivers or bursaries are the best way to help poor students.

Russell Harbison, head of widening participation at Bucks New, said it would also pursue its access work by continuing the partnerships it established under the soon-to-be-scrapped Aimhigher programme.

"Every day we see successful students who before they came didn't even believe they could go to university. That is what drives us," he said.

Financial strategy: In an uncertain climate, it pays to be flexible

Formulating a university's financial plan in a year that has seen two governments, a major public debt crisis and the biggest policy review of higher education in more than a decade may seem like an impossible task.

But for Steve Dewhurst, director of business planning at Bucks New University, the real uncertainty will only start to be resolved this autumn when the first figures on student applications for 2012-13 filter through from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Only then will he know whether months of scenario planning, forecasting and modelling on fee levels and their potential effect on demand have paid off.

"Can we say that students are a predictable group of people? I don't think we can. I am not sure anyone knows (how they will respond to higher fees) and we have to live with that," he explained.

He is confident that Bucks New has effectively positioned itself in the market through a diverse but targeted offering. However, for him the danger is that high fee levels across the board will reshape overall demand in ways that are tough to predict.

"People will start to look at other options: they may look abroad for their higher education and there are private universities entering the equation as well. There may also be a number of students who won't be willing to go up to £6,000 or £9,000 at all," he said.

As a result, the marketplace that Bucks New is tapping into may shrink. With this in mind, the financial plan is being kept deliberately flexible so that the university can react quickly when the first indications of demand emerge.

Key to this has been careful consideration of the balance between modes of provision.

"I think we are well positioned because we are looking at the whole landscape - not just full-time undergraduates who come here at 18," Mr Dewhurst said.

Staff view: Change is what we do

For one member of staff at Bucks New University, the funding upheavals that could have profound implications for the institution are just the latest in a series of transformations she has witnessed over the course of three decades at the institution.

Ruth Gunstone joined as a part-time lecturer in English in 1978 - when the university was the Buckinghamshire College of Higher Education - and has risen to become director of student experience.

In that time, she has helped design the institution's first humanities degree programmes, been a course leader, a head of department and a dean. She has seen the institution's status change from being a college to a university college and finally a fully fledged university in 2007.

She said that this progression will stand Bucks New in good stead as it strives to adapt to higher fees and cuts to government funding.

"We have been adapting ourselves for a bit longer than some of the more traditional universities. We haven't been lulled into a false sense of security for a long period of time," she said.

However, she is under no illusion that the challenge facing staff is probably bigger than anything they have had to contend with before.

"People are worried, but they are also thinking creatively and strategically about maintaining their areas of expertise and where they can grow provision," Ms Gunstone said.

She added that managers have also attempted to fully involve members of staff as key decisions have been contemplated on how to cut costs and plan for the future - and have called for ideas on both.

On tuition fees, members of staff have been asked for their specific views on what should be charged, whether prices should be differentiated between courses and how students from disadvantaged backgrounds should be helped in the new environment.

"Staff haven't always liked the messages that are coming forward, but I don't think anybody could say they don't know what's going on," Ms Gunstone said.

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