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One really positive outcome of the strife and argument around UK HE funding is the development of a number of prospective independent centres of Higher Education, such as the Really Open University and the Lincoln Social Science Centre. Coupling this with detailed cultural critiques of knowledge and education such as the University of Utopia and Dark Mountain – and the worldwide Alternative University “movement” – we seem to be living through a time when a serious contender to the traditional HE institution is emerging. (Indeed, for those who think an alternative movement is not truly established until it is co-opted by marketing practice, take a look at NotGoingToUni!)
However, one stumbling block that these otherwise excellent initiatives face is the currency of the degree itself. No matter the criticism that the “degree” is constantly under ( arbitrariness, contentions over value and significance, increasing co-option by consumerist narratives, and over-emphasis on summative assessment as a measure of a formative process), it is still a legitimising agent for what is essentially a sustained focus on radical critique for its own sake.
Traditional universities discuss and promote radical and subversive ideas (alongside the vocational world-of-work stuff) but the fact that this leads to “a degree” gives students and staff the space and authority to do this.
So how could an alternative to University access this hegemonic legitimacy whilst not changing one single iota of their academic practice?
Why – by applying for UK degree awarding powers, of course!
BPP did it, as did Ashridge Business School. London Business School are doing it, also Pearson, Kaplan the London School of Management and Science….
But there’s no rule to say that you need to teach Business Management to apply. It’s actually fairly easy to apply. The QAA have published some handy guidance to help you, as have BIS.
What it comes down to is 4 years of teaching to Higher Education levels, a robust system of management and quality assurance (including external examiner processes), availability of appropriate staff and learning resources and (sorry) £30,000 of cash, £40,000 if you want to award research degrees (MPhil, PhD) too. I can only imagine that the fee exists to deter speculative/poorly prepared applications – but I can appreciate that it will deter a lot of people who may not be able to raise that kind of money. The best one can imagine happening is some foundation or fund being set up to support this process.
Ignoring the payment requirement, I could imagine a lot of groups being in a position to apply:
FE Colleges already delivering HE.
Recently-closed (or under threat) departments and faculties from mainstream universities.
Established collaborative (cross-institutional) entities.
- Global educators, if they can claim to be “based” in England or Wales (though the growth of online learning would suggest that this may need to be changed…)
- Trade Unions
And broadly what they need to have in place (appendix A of linked document) is:
A good quality system of academic governance
Mechanisms of internal and external quality assurance
Good staff with relevant experience.
Availability of learning and teaching resources/infrastructure
I want to come back to this in the coming weeks, and try and pick out in detail what would be needed for an application with a fair chance of success, drawing on publicly available and open documentation and resources where possible, and proposing potential alternative models. And I note that new guidance is expected imminently – probably in the forthcoming HE White Paper – so I will comment on these changes as well.
But the key message is that you don’t have to behave like a mainstream university to have degree awarding powers, you don’t even need to charge students any fees! – and that recent funding changes mean that new models are not only possible but inevitable. Let’s hope that some of these new models are resilient and meaningful enough to do some genuine long-term good for UK society.