Pearson: UK ‘boutique university’ to mesh with company strategy

Pearson College London to mirror firm’s strategic direction in employer engagement and online

January 5, 2017

The UK college owned by FTSE 100 company Pearson is aiming to be a “boutique university” that is limited in size, with plans to help the wider company implement its “strategic direction” in education rather than compete directly with universities.

Roxanne Stockwell, principal of Pearson College London, spoke to Times Higher Education after the institution moved in the autumn to a new base in company offices in Holborn, central London, where it currently hosts about 440 students in business management degrees but now also in animation, video games and visual effects under its Escape Studios acquisition.

Ms Stockwell said that “our top objective really is around applying for degree-awarding powers and getting university title”, with the hope that it could apply for the former in 2017 under existing rules.

She said that the aim was to build “what I call a boutique university” with the ultimate goal of reaching 2,000 students.

Pearson, which bills itself as “the world’s leading learning company”, has attracted much interest since launching its college in 2012, given that the size of its owner seemed to offer scope for a major presence in UK higher education.

“At the moment, we don’t have plans to run to the hundreds of thousands [of students] – I know that everyone always thinks that we do,” Ms Stockwell said.

But she said that Pearson College London, which still has student numbers capped by the government like all private providers without degree powers, “isn’t about really trying to compete very directly” with universities “and create a UK version of the University of Phoenix [the US for-profit giant] or something like that. It’s more about – if you think about the strategic direction of Pearson moving more and more into education – that we should be able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

Ms Stockwell called higher education “an important part of Pearson’s overall strategy” and said: “Further down the track there could be other ways of creating revenue opportunities, in particular around working with employers and being able to validate and accredit [education and training] activity that happens within employers.”

She also cited the college's work in starting to offer some modules online. “In Pearson itself [the wider company], what we’re really doing is helping lots of other universities go online,” she said. “Again, part of this is about learning experience ourselves that we can then use with other clients.”

But she added: “Having said that, five years down the track, management may have a different strategy and say we’d really like to do something significant in India, or whatever. And obviously if we’ve got our own UK-based university, that could potentially be part of that.”

Ms Stockwell backed the government’s plans to make it easier for new private providers in England to gain degree-awarding powers, calling the growth in the number of private institutions with the powers so far “pathetic”. She added: “If you’re going to have innovation and challenge, it has to be possible to enter.”

The wider company of Pearson, rather than the college, is an awarding body for the Higher National qualifications used by small for-profit colleges that rapidly expanded their taxpayer-funded provision of these courses under the coalition government.

Ms Stockwell said that the government had learned lessons and added: “It is true that there can be issues when you have no control on expansion and public money. But I think that applies in the public sector or the private sector…whether it’s for-profit or not-for-profit also doesn’t make any difference.”

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