Maintaining orbit in hostile skies

Year-long Hull study puts satellite campuses on the research radar. Matthew Reisz reports

May 13, 2010

Satellite campuses are an increasingly common part of the British higher education landscape as universities strive to widen access and extend their regional reach.

But questions remain about how such ventures contribute to universities' overall aims.

Now the University of Hull has embarked on a year-long research project to address the issue, with funding from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

The project is being led by Craig Gaskell, dean of the university's Scarborough campus, a site that embodies many of the themes that are being investigated.

The campus is home to 1,750 students and offers courses in everything from English to educational studies and theatre to tourism management. Yet many of its offerings, from foundation degrees to the postgraduate level, are dictated by its location and the needs of the local economy. Courses in health and social care were set up to train people for work in the town's nursing homes, while art courses aim to hone the skills required by the area's thriving creative industries.

Making a virtue of its seaside setting, the campus also focuses on field work in environmental and marine science.

But what is the most effective relationship between the centre and the satellite? Dr Gaskell said there were a number of existing models.

Some satellites form an integral part of the university, with academic and support staff shared across locations, while others are separate business units and virtually separate institutions. In an example of yet another approach, University Campus Suffolk is run jointly by the University of Essex and the University of East Anglia.

Dr Gaskell said that the different models led to a variety of challenges for universities.

"What are the tensions between the strategic and operational levels?" he asked. "How can universities measure the financial contribution of their satellites? How can they make the student experience consistent?"

The project will focus on universities with a main site and a single satellite campus more than 20 miles away, as opposed to genuinely split-site or multi-campus institutions.

Dr Gaskell said he believed there were about 10 British examples, but added that even this basic information was unobtainable from the obvious organisations.

As a result, a literature review and desk research will be required as the basis for questionnaires and detailed case studies. These will be carried out with an academic rigour that universities do not usually bring to bear on their own institutional arrangements.

By exploring strategic and structural issues and questions of management, leadership and governance, Dr Gaskell said he hoped to pool experience that could inform decision-making.

The process should also help to build a network of relevant institutions that can share good practice in the future.

"Satellites can feel vulnerable in a difficult funding context. They may even be under threat of closure, as in previous recessions," Dr Gaskell said.

"This research should provide some of the tools to enable them to maintain higher education, often in more remote areas."

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