Seats of learning that deserve high standing

April 9, 2004

Higher education colleges' strengths add value to the university brand, say Dianne Willcocks and John Cater.

The government proposes that the arrangements for the award of university title should be revisited, not relaxed. This is contested territory, and it was ever thus.

Two generations ago, many of England's highly regarded universities, such as Warwick, York and Lancaster, were new kids on the block; and universities with best practice in widening participation were not accorded university title until the early 1990s.

Everyone benefits from a higher education system where the brand is dynamic and aims at fitness-for-purpose. So we welcome Labour's intention to provide a challenging route for successful institutions to be considered as learning-led universities.

For 40 years, entry to university status has turned on research reputation - important to all higher-education institutions, even if the research assessment exercise is a poor surrogate for the applied, practice-based and vocationally relevant research that characterises Standing Conference of Principals institutions. But the 2003 white paper invites us to be excellent at more than research: at knowledge transfer, at widening participation and at learning and teaching. We believe that the next generation of learning-led universities will add value to UKHE and UK plc.

Higher education colleges are subject to the same funding and regulatory regimes and the same quality assessment and assurance processes as the rest of the university sector, and have proven equal to their university peers.

Over the past five years, there has been no statistical difference between the quality assessment scores of those higher education institutions that have university in their title and those that do not.

Work for the Universities UK long-term strategy group testifies that general and specialist colleges cover the same spectrum on measures of business health as do universities. And analysis of Higher Education Funding Council for England data in the supply and demand for higher education shows that colleges are increasingly popular and are managing demand-led expansion successfully.

But what are the colleges' strengths? First, a strong tradition - often rooted in Victorian "access" commitments and translated into present-day missions and values - of putting students and learning first. Second, a national reputation for widening participation - more than four-fifths of general colleges match or exceed their Hefce benchmark targets and, as major providers of teacher education, are able to build on their strong links with schools. This record in vocational education and training extends beyond the classroom into the National Health Service and sectors such as agriculture.

Some of the most innovative and highly regarded providers without university title are specialist institutions. The UK has an international reputation in the creative industries, and the specialist colleges are the bedrock of that reputation. Some specialist institutions are small, but should this determine how they are positioned in the higher education market? If we define universities by the only appropriate criterion - the quality of what is achieved - they should be welcomed.

There are also geographical arguments for extending opportunities for university title. Non-university institutions are vital in providing high-quality, market-responsive education in areas with no local university and poor participation history such as Cornwall and Cumbria. As the variable-fee environment forces people to study nearer home, locality will grow in importance. With university title, higher education institutions would gain from enhanced market awareness and greater flexibility.

For international engagement, too, university title matters. Overseas governments make assumptions on status that may not reflect reality, making it difficult for some of the UK's best providers of training in the creative industries, health, agriculture or teacher development to compete globally, to the detriment of the national economy.

Evidence of robust performance supports Scop's argument for dynamic diversity: universities of different sizes, strengths and specialisms united by quality of achievement not by scale. As a body representing institutions with a tradition of flexibility and responsiveness, of student support, innovation and vocational excellence, we welcome this commitment to extending opportunity to apply for university title. This does not dilute the university brand; it adds modernity and strength. And, in 40 years, when we look back at past university successes, don't be surprised to see the 2004 group among them.

Dianne Willcocks is principal of York St John College and Scop chair; John Cater is director of Edge Hill College of Higher Education and past Scop chair.

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