UK’s first greenfield university in a generation opens

NMITE director Elena Rodriguez-Falcon says engineering institution has delivered on founding vision despite discarding more radical proposals

September 12, 2021
Source: NMITE: Elena Rodriguez-Falcon

The UK’s first greenfield university in more than 40 years has opened its doors – a year later than planned after a pandemic-induced delay.

Teaching at Hereford’s New Model in Technology & Engineering (NMITE) for its first full intake finally began last week, five years after plans for the new UK engineering university were first unveiled.

A “pioneer cohort” of 30 students have enrolled on NMITE’s three-year accelerated general engineering degrees, selected from 150 applications, with another 30 undergraduates set to start in January, chief executive Elena Rodriguez-Falcon told Times Higher Education.

“It is a very exciting time,” said Professor Rodriguez-Falcon, a Mexican-born engineer who joined NMITE in 2018 from the University of Sheffield.

“Creating a higher education institution from a blank piece of paper is very, very challenging but the pandemic added even more complexity,” she continued.

“However, when you have a vision for an institution that is so strong, and when the local community, government and industry partners are so committed, it makes things much easier,” she reflected, stating that the year-long delay caused by Covid restrictions had allowed time for NMITE to meet the full requirements of the Office for Students prior to opening.

Professor Rodriguez-Falcon, who hopes the institution will grow to between 800 and 1,000 students within five years, said she was pleased with the institution’s application numbers, though had hoped to enrol more female students as nationally only about one in seven engineers are women, according to Engineering UK.

“We didn’t get the 50-50 gender balance that we wanted but it is something we are working on,” she said.

Some of the more radical ideas put forward by NMITE’s founders – local industry and council leaders – have also been ditched, partly because the institution’s accreditation with The Open University would not allow it, explained Professor Rodriguez-Falcon.

For instance, it was initially suggested that NMITE would not have any degree classifications, with students given a general classification based on a portfolio of assessed work completed in collaboration with industry.

“We will have degree classifications but the pedagogic model based on active learning that we envisaged has certainly remained,” said Professor Rodriguez-Falcon, who said that the curriculum had been co-designed and tested on students and recent engineering graduates during a pilot cohort last year.

Other early proposals – including that NMITE’s academics would be teaching-only and not pursue research – have also been ditched, albeit because industry partners have been keen to cooperate on projects with the new institution.

Robert Hairstans, director of NMITE’s Centre for Advanced Timber Technology, the first of three new buildings on NMITE’s Skylon Campus, based in Hereford’s Enterprise Zone, said he was keen to involve students in some of the high-level research work due to take place at the new centre.

“We want to bring that research into the educational framework as we establish the academic team as it will help to keep the educational approach fresh,” said Professor Hairstans, who is also director of Edinburgh Napier University’s Institute for Sustainable Construction, which is working with NMITE.

Reflecting on the creation of NMITE, which is the first major university created from scratch since the University of Buckingham was born in the 1970s and gained university status in 1983, Professor Rodriguez-Falcon said it had been a matter of “never taking the foot off the pedal”.

“We’ve developed levels of resilience that we did not know we had but the hard work has been worth it because we feel our offer, including real work experience and industry collaboration, rather than a traditional engineering degree, is needed right now” she said.

“We’re glad that our pioneer students feel the same way and have taken one of the biggest decisions of their life to join us here.”

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