by Katherine Emms
The 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) enabled new and innovative HE providers to enter and establish themselves, with the aim of diversifying the HE sector. The HERA reforms enabled institutions to apply to register as HE providers, obtain their own degree awarding powers (DAPs) and finally secure university title and status through a supposedly more streamlined and flexible process overseen by – the then new body – the Office for Students (OfS). At this unique time when many providers have been seizing this opportunity to enter the market, the Edge Foundation wanted to capture the experiences of setting up and developing new HEIs in England. Our subsequent research therefore aimed to explore how vision, pedagogies and approaches to learning are being developed, and what are some of the challenges these HEIs are experiencing in establishing themselves.
To investigate this we conducted a series of semi-structured interviews focusing on six newly established HEIs across England. At the time of the interviews some were in the process of recruiting their first intake of undergraduate students, while others were in their first few years of programme delivery. We spoke to founders, directors, senior leadership team members and those involved in setting up a new university and developing the first programmes. Policymakers were also interviewed.
We found that all the new HEIs set out clear and purposeful visions for their establishment. Many regarded the opportunity as a chance to break the mould of the traditional HE landscape and to help provide solutions to some global issues through preparing students sufficiently for a varied portfolio career in a complex world. Some HEIs were responding to more local needs, whether that be local skills shortages or offering HE opportunities for young people in their locality to help tackle local economic issues and widen participation.
Across many of the institutions’ organisational structures, administrative and academic processes, and physical spaces, they looked to break away from normalised HE structures. For instance, admissions policies and procedures aimed to move away from academic grades as the primary judgement for admitting students. Instead they consider personal attitudes and the potential of the applicant important. They assessed this through use of broader admission measures eg interviews and submission of ‘selfie’ videos. The scalability of such approaches however is uncertain as applications to the new HEIs grow. One of the reasons behind these approaches was to ensure they widened participation to more disadvantaged and diverse groups of students who may struggle to have previously entered HE.
For their staff body, new HEIs wanted to ensure that they recruited not just pure academics but also those with a background in industry. In order to recruit the right staff, they went beyond standard interviewing processes for recruitment, instead using a broader set of methods, such as running a test class. They were particularly looking for engaging and excellent teachers who also have the ethos, creativity and impetus for working in a start-up environment.
All the new HEIs in this research took non-traditional approaches to programme design and delivery, particularly by not relying on lectures and exams to teach students. Instead they wished to use more student-centred approaches to learning and make connections to the real-world through pedagogies such as problem-based learning, whereby students work primarily in teams to tackle issues whilst drawing on knowledge from multiple disciplines. Employers and external partners also are key role players in the design and delivery of these new HEIs, from designing the curriculum to offering real-world and authentic projects for students to work on. Importantly students also interact with these employers whether that be through presenting their ‘product’ from the team projects to the employer or through such interactions as expert lectures or work placements. A disinterest in traditional pedagogies and enthusiasm for external collaboration were understood as key to ensuring the authenticity otherwise suggested to be lacking in some existing HE provision.
Setting up a new HEI was not an easy feat, with participants reporting a number of challenges including funding and attracting new students. One particular challenge was the registration process and navigating the regulatory system. The process from registering as a HE provider to gaining DAPs was often seen as a slow and, for some, complicated process. Furthermore despite the impetus behind the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) endorsing ideas of innovation, new HEIs felt that external factors restricted the degree to which they could truly be ‘innovative’. For instance, the regulatory frameworks that new HEIs had to work within to register as a provider were based on assumptions about the traditional model of a university. One provider described the experience as ‘trying to fit a square peg into a round hole’. Likewise, some new HEIs discussed similar restrictions applying when working in partnership with existing universities, meaning they were restricted within the parameters of their awarding university. In both cases, some new HEIs stated that this led to mission-drift or a watering down of their ‘innovative’ approaches.
Nevertheless, these new HEIs were ambitious and keen to achieve their visions through wielding and deploying unorthodox means, whether that be reimagining organisational structures and processes or combining pedological practices that would not necessarily be considered innovative by themselves, such as problem-based learning, interdisciplinary teaching and learning and student-centred teaching. But through presenting these practices together or in different combinations and in new contexts HEIs made ambitious attempts to generate different student outcomes.
The HEIs featured in this research were still in the early stages of conception or delivery. It is difficult therefore to judge their success as HEIs. It is yet to be seen whether many of their current practices, such as their innovative and personable approach to recruitment, are manageable when student applications and intake grows, or whether relationships with employers can be sustained and courses kept up to date. For the new HEIs of today, many of them consider the markers of their success will be in their student numbers over the coming years and the success of their graduates once they enter the workplace. Yet, despite the attention of policymakers looking to clamp down on “low-value degrees”, we may need to look beyond graduates’ salaries as a marker of success and instead delve further into learners’ experiences of HE, innovative and otherwise.