Small and specialist

October 18, 1996

THES reporters survey today's higher education sector to spot tomorrow's growing points.

Buckingham University, founded in 1973, kicked off the modern era of higher private sector education. But the model of a private university has not been imitated. The nearest equivalent are the US-accredited "international university" colleges.

Another model - the small, specialist, independent colleges which run university-validated degrees - is likely to prove more successful. Clive Sanden, chairman of the Council of Independent Colleges and Research Institutions, which represents around 30 higher education centres, thinks the majority will follow the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester in achieving degree-awarding powers.

Already, he suggests, some specialist colleges, particularly the world-famous drama schools such as the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, are offering a mix of academic qualifications and employability unrivalled by traditional universities. "The students pass the test of 'graduateness'," he says "yet have the specific skills which impress employers." The added bonus of exclusive institution-brand degrees could increase their popularity among students and employers.

Henley Management College, which runs Brunel-validated degrees, has applied for degree-awarding powers for taught "executive" courses, and hopes to be given the go-ahead by Christmas. As the country's oldest business school, and with more than 6,500 students and a company client list stretching to more than 100, Henley represents a real alternative to university business schools.

Ray Wild, the college principal and a former Brunel professor, says: "We do things which universities do, but not necessarily in the same way." He claims that the Henley model is so compelling, especially to employers, that some university business schools might follow suit, severing the umbilical cord with the mother institution and becoming independent institutions.

Other independent colleges, such as Holborn Law College, which already offers Wolverhampton-validated degrees, expect to develop their range of international postgraduate level courses rather than seek British degree-awarding powers.

Such specialist colleges could be joined by advanced in-house training establishments set up by large corporate employers. In recent years, some universities have offered bespoke degree courses for particular companies - for instance, the Sainsbury marketing BSc at Manchester Metropolitan University.

As a contrast, Unipart, the car parts manufacturing company, has established its own vocational "university". Unipart "U", as it is known, offers advanced courses in problem solving, team management and lean production. Disneyland Paris is exploring the possibility of opening a private university to train Europeans in the art of American-style customer service.

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