An international association is to be formed to defend the collegiate model of university education and to encourage its adoption around the world.
Proposals for the organisation are being drawn up after the first international conference on the issue, held at Durham University, heard concerns that the need to save money was pushing institutions towards greater centralisation of budgets and student services.
Martyn Evans, one of the organisers of the “Collegiate Way” conference, told Times Higher Education that approaches to collegiate education varied across the UK and beyond, in terms of whether accommodation is offered to all members or mainly to first years, whether the Oxbridge model of delivering tuition in college is followed, and what support is provided.
But Professor Evans said that the basic principle of a college as an “experiment in living” where students from different courses mixed freely had much to be recommended.
“What we have in common is that we are trying to do something that extends beyond the subject-orientated education of students within a discipline,” said Professor Evans, the principal of Durham’s Trevelyan College. “We are all in the business of trying to help young adults in transition grow into the people they need to be and society needs them to be.”
Durham is one of the institutions where the collegiate system has been felt to be most at risk, with proposals to manage budgets centrally triggering fears last year that colleges would be reduced to halls of residence in all but name.
Professor Evans said he hoped the conference, which took place in November, had helped to emphasise the benefits of the collegiate system at Durham. But he added that many other participants from around the world had expressed concern about how attempts to “impose a centralised uniformity on university practices” were “at odds with practitioners on the ground developing individual experiences for students”.
Speaking generally, he said: “The lowest common denominator in centralisation is probably to do things as cheaply as possible. It doesn’t always mean to do things well and sometimes to do things cheaply can really spoil what you otherwise would do to [an] excellent level.”
He added that the extent of the “threat” of centralisation for collegiate institutions depended “on the will and imagination of the people at the centre”. “If these people ‘get’ and really appreciate the added value of the collegiate system, then I am sure they would know when it is prudent to stop,” he said.
Professor Evans said the new association could make the case for the benefits of the collegiate approach and share expertise internationally while also tackling concerns such as the representation of collegiate universities in rankings such as the National Student Survey.
Questions in this tend to ask about “the university”, leading collegiate institutions which deliver fewer functions on a university-wide level to fare less well in the overall scores, Professor Evans said.
So far, the organisers have identified 86 collegiate universities around the world but they believe the total is much higher.