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New higher education institutions: a real chance to innovate?

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by Katherine Emms

Since the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, England has seen a surge of new higher education institutions adding to the traditional higher education  landscape. The Act made a number of major changes to the sector, one of which was the introduction of the Office for Students (OfS), which was given responsibility to grant degree-awarding powers to providers and the right to use ‘university’ in their title. The Act was intended to make it easier for more providers to enter the market, and in the words of the 2018 Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, it was “designed to facilitate innovation, avoiding overly-prescriptive, process-focussed approaches that might place limitations on creativity”. The invitation was welcomed by a number of providers and now, a few short years later, some are already taking in their first cohorts of students. But are these institutions truly offering something different to students, facilitating innovation and diversification in a crowded marketplace, or just replicating existing models?

At The Edge Foundation we wanted to investigate the early experiences of these new higher education institutions (HEIs) and understand what their guiding principles and reasons for setting up were, as well as how they were interpreting their visions and putting these into practice. We have conducted a number of semi-structured interviews with founders and staff across several new HEIs, with more dialogue to follow as these institutions move through their early stages of operation.

Employability is increasingly seen as a responsibility of HE, not just as a separate task of the careers services but one which should be an integrated element within academic learning (Crammer, 2006). New HEIs have highlighted the gap between existing provision and employers’ needs, and see their offering as a way to address this issue, claiming that their innovative approaches could better support the employability of students. One way this has been tackled is through strong collaboration with employers from the outset of designing the course and its content. Some new HEIs emphasised the importance of a ‘backwards design’ which is demand (employer)-led rather than supply (academic)-led. Having industry experts involved in skills gap workshops and continuously having employer representatives as part of the validation process were some of the ways that supported this.

Most of the new HEIs we spoke to focus on broadness of provision in a number of senses. First and foremost, they set aside traditional subject silos and instead are looking to offer interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary degrees, or offer a broader notion to a single subject area (e.g. bringing the social science aspect into engineering). The arguments put forward were that complex world problems are not fixed within a single discipline and require a broad knowledge and skill set that spans disciplines in order to be solved. One way to support this broad provision is through staff recruitment at the new HEIs; staff are recruited partly from industry, partly from the world of academia, but ultimately having the right attitude and a team working ethos to work collaboratively across disciplines are considered key.

The broadness theme also plays out in terms of the development of the student. Looking beyond academic and knowledge-based learning, the development of the whole student is seen as core to their provision. All aspects are important – from ensuring the development of transferable skills that are integrated into the curriculum, to ensuring students take part in meaningful placements and have employer interactions to develop the ‘professional’ skills they need after graduation.

Another way these new HEIs are pushing back against traditional modes of delivery is through their focus on team work, and problem-based learning or project-based learning. Almost all our participants emphasised that their HEI has no lectures, instead focussing on students working together on authentic real-world issues often set by an external client, making them relevant to industry. Alongside this, exams are not the main form of assessment, instead a range of more ‘authentic’ methods were discussed including reflective portfolios, podcasts, blogs, and pitches to businesses.

These new HEIs vary across their stage of development, their size, mission, and delivery, although some common factors have been set out above. One thing that all the new HEIs have had to navigate was the registration and policy landscape. Some of these were partnering with or being ‘parented’ by an established university to go through the process and some were going at it alone. This brought differing issues and seemed to influence the degree of innovation they could deliver. To some extent working within the parameters of another university can stifle the innovation by having to fit their delivery into traditional and established ways. On the other hand, these established universities have the advantage of bringing credibility to the new HEIs, which can be beneficial both in terms of the registration process and the attractiveness to new students.

Ultimately these HEIs are new and are yet to see a full cohort of students graduate, therefore we have limited markers of success so far on which to evaluate them. Likewise it is difficult to see how innovative these providers are, as one stakeholder remarked: “innovative might be a great idea, but until it’s tested is much harder to understand whether it really is innovative”.Edge will continue with our research over the next year and beyond to understand more about the experiences of these new HEIs and their students.

Katherine Emms is a Senior Education & Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation. Her main areas of research are in higher education, vocational education, skills shortages in the economy and employability skills. Current and published research can be seen here: https://www.edge.co.uk/research/research-team/kat-emms/. Twitter @kat_emms

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

One thought on “New higher education institutions: a real chance to innovate?

  1. Katherine, your finding that the institutions you studied want to offer broader-based qualifications and break down what you call the traditional subject-based silos is interesting, but I’m sure you appreciate that it is not in itself a new idea. Several of the 1960s new universities (perhaps most famously Sussex, with its “new map of learning”) tried hard to make interdisciplinary approaches work, but ultimately it seemed that students didn’t want it. Similarly, as they developed from the 1970s, several polytechnics had the same idea, and were perhaps more closely attuned to employer needs than the universities of the day (so they said, anyway). But I think the result was much the same. Do you think there is solid evidence that employers will appoint someone with the interdisciplinary background you sketch out, in preference to another candidate with perhaps more impressive credentials in the employer’s core business? They may talk the talk, but when it come to it…!

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