No risk posed by 10 little newbies

GuildHE chief reassures sector as Willetts hails removal of size restrictions. John Morgan reports

November 29, 2012

Source: Andi Sapey Photography

In the bag? Norwich UCA is among institutions aiming for the title ‘university’

The historic decision to recommend university title for 10 specialist colleges poses “no threat” to existing universities, according to a senior sector figure who lobbied for the change.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced on November that the 10 institutions had met the criteria for the title, leading to “the single biggest creation of universities since 1992”.

The institutions that will be put forward to the Privy Council for formal approval are: Arts University College at Bournemouth; Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln; Harper Adams University College; Leeds Trinity University College; Newman University College, Birmingham; Norwich University College of the Arts; Royal Agricultural College; University College Birmingham; University College Falmouth; and University College Plymouth St Mark & St John.

The move follows the coalition’s decision to lower the threshold for university title from 4,000 full-time higher education students to 1,000, a plan outlined in last year’s White Paper. However, some universities opposed the change. In its response to the White Paper technical consultation last year, the University of Birmingham said the plans would “risk diluting and damaging the reputation of UK HE”.

Birmingham’s response, obtained by Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act, added that 1,000 full-time students was “just too low for an institution to be credibly called a university”.

But Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, the representative body of which all 10 new universities are members, said understanding the nature and aims of the institutions could “calm people’s fears”.

The institutions “are not looking to triple in size and take on new provision”, he said.

And he added: “There is no threat on (student) numbers…They are a part of the sector in the way they always have been - just with a little more recognition.”

He noted that “a lot of people just don’t know what a university college is”, so university title would improve the institutions’ standing among students, employers and parents. It would also help their work overseas, where understanding of the term “university college” is even “muddier”, Mr Westwood said.

The creation of the universities represents a lobbying success for GuildHE, which pushed hard for the change. And David Willetts, the universities and science minister, will see it as a personal achievement after much of his agenda was held up by the abandonment in January of the planned higher education bill.

He said: “It is right to remove the barriers preventing high-quality higher education providers like these calling themselves universities simply because of their size.”

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