No research, no degree classifications, no faculty titles – it’s clear that the new technology university planned for Hereford intends to do things differently.
“None of these ideas are new as they already happen somewhere around the world, but we will be the first to bring them all together,” explained David Sheppard, one of the local business people behind the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMITE), which would be the UK’s first new “greenfield” university in 40 years if it opens, as planned, in 2019.
The most radical idea proposed by the nascent university is perhaps its plan to offer an “accelerated master’s” in engineering, which typically takes four years, in just three years.
Those signing up to the degree would be taught for 46 weeks a year – as opposed to the standard 30-week academic year – allowing the NMITE to condense a four-year curriculum into three years, Mr Sheppard said.
With a six-month work placement also included, some traditionalists in the engineering world might question whether such a course could ever match up to a standard MEng given the reduced amount of time available for private study.
However, the intensity of study will be enough to satisfy engineering’s various professional bodies – which accredit courses – as well as students, employers and quality assurance organisations, believes Peter Goodhew, emeritus professor of engineering at the University of Liverpool, who is now the NMITE’s curriculum adviser.
“A significant number of our students will be armed forces leavers or those from the world of work, so they will be used to having just six weeks off a year – it won’t be a shock to the system for them,” said Professor Goodhew, one of several senior academics volunteering to help the project.
“We are also talking with one of the major accrediting bodies, as well as the Engineering Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering, about our degrees,” added the former Liverpool pro vice-chancellor and author of the textbook Teaching Engineering.
Many potential students interviewed in focus groups cite the accelerated master’s degree as a major attraction of the university, which wants to begin recruiting its first cohort in 2018, he said.
“People say you must be dumbing down if you are doing this, but the course will be entirely residential with students living round campus, which makes a big difference to the intensity of the course,” Professor Goodhew said.
Those behind the NMITE are also exploring whether they will be able to charge in excess of the normal annual undergraduate tuition fee – possibly up to £12,000 a year – given the condensed nature of their course.
However, the new higher education bill, debated in Parliament last month, does not appear to allow for this possibility, which would help the institution cope with the high cost of teaching engineering.
Nonetheless, Mr Sheppard describes the latest proposed legislation as “hugely helpful” – NMITE was mentioned in a Department of Business, Innovation and Skills’ press release accompanying the May publication of the bill – and is hopeful of obtaining £20 million of state seed funding, possibly to be announced in the next Autumn Statement. It remains in discussion with the University of Warwick about validation of its degrees.
Other unusual plans on the table include having no degree classifications for students, who would instead present a portfolio of their work to employers.
“What is more impressive to employers – saying ‘I have a first or 2:1’ or showing a portfolio of 13 or 14 things you have actually done?” said Professor Goodhew, who believes that students’ exposure to workplace scenarios will give NMITE's graduates an edge in the labour market.
“The University of Cambridge’s MEng is unclassified and it’s good enough for them,” he added.
Nor will the engineering course demand that students have maths or physics A level – a requirement at many universities, although something that Professor Goodhew believes is increasingly obsolete if applicants are generally academically able.
“The Royal Academy of Engineering want to double the number of engineers we have, but we can’t fill this pipeline by simply taking more of the same,” he explained, citing the limited number of students holding good results in both maths and physics – the traditional pool of applicants for engineering.
The NMITE, which aims to have 1,000 students within three years of opening and 5,000 within 10 to 12 years, will also offer a different proposition to its future faculty.
Instead of the normal academic titles and hierarchies found in most universities, staff will simply be called “tutor” – with the institution limiting itself to being “teaching only”, a move that should substantially lower its costs.
That has not put off existing academics from expressing an interest in joining the institution, which intends to begin recruitment next spring, said Mr Sheppard.
“About 150 people have registered an interest in supplying their services, of whom about 120 are faculty at Russell Group universities,” he said.
“These are people who want to get out of the research rat race and concentrate on teaching,” he added.