Roll your own university

This post represents my own opinions only and does not represent the views of my employers, or of programmes and projects I am responsible. It is available under a CC-BY license.

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!

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.
  • Social (peer) educators – such as School of Everything and P2PU.
  • 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
  • Charities
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.

12 thoughts on “Roll your own university”

  1. Very interesting – probably the next thing you need after all the listed is a bunch of good people with a coherent view on what higher education is, because without that, and without the weight of tradition behind you, it will be really easy to fragment into any number of arguments about how to constitute and run such an organisation. So, next question…… what are the different views of HE that a good bunch of people could gather round — i.e. what are the likely visions that would cohere as well with the whole effort of starting up a new model of institution?

  2. @asimong – great question! – though I note that traditional higher education institutions (HEIs) often don’t have a coherent view on what higher education is. A good governance structure should manage the (valuable) diversity of opinion in positive ways.But I’ll give it some thought, hopefully others will too and respond.

  3. @Joss – glad you found it useful. I wonder if it is just the “degree” aspect that, if added, would draw in undergraduates?

  4. I’ve been thinking about this since Mark Johnson’s post about £26 for a slice of feedback. Not all areas of study value that bit of paper stamped ‘degree’ as highly as others. And I could imagine some sort of confirmation of participation coming from any teacher/academic who is respected within his/her own field if they do not have degree-awarding powers!I envisage a group of academics buying up the real estate of an urban (student) village, charging simply for living accommodation (plus the income from cafes, bars, clubs, gig venues) and hanging out in meeting spaces, informally ‘teaching’ students. No timetables, no curriculum, no formal testing. Students make things (blogs, media, presentations, even essays), teachers feedback. No libraries, lecture halls, IT facilities, student services. Just a village. Students get their living-away-from-home experience and daily interaction with their mentors, teachers earn through rental of accommodation.

  5. @Pete that’s a really interesting model – university as village! The advantage of the certificate is that it is a (nearly) universally recognised currency, you can imagine a graduate with pretty radical plans taking a “graduate” job to finance them.

  6. @Joss – two questions I’d like to tackle in more depth but a quick answer…Tuition fees: as far as I understand it, no. My reading of the ’04 HE Bill is that fees are not compulsory for institutions with degree awarding powers and I don’t think (but am not 100% sure) that the 2010 enabling legislation as voted on changed this.HEFCE: Yes, it would be eligible, but would have (I think – and this is all up in the air at the moment) to meet HEFCE conditions of grant (eg subscription to HESA, QAA, Higher Education Academy, JISC/Janet).

  7. I wonder if the consortia approach suggested by the Online Learning Task Force for online distance courses could include the creation of a award bearing entity that was independent (in degree awarding terms) from the institutions who would lend their gravitas to the endeavour? (I’m avoiding the word ‘brand’)Excellent point that you don’t have to offer only MBAs to apply for awarding status. I someone will have the courage to take a more ‘creative’ route. The UK is well respected as a home of the arts/humanities. Personally I think there could be a real opportunity here in the inherently international online distance space.

  8. Really useful post David, thanks – and really great comments too.I love Pete Whitfield’s idea – it reminds em so much of the discussions my friends and I used to have as undergraduates about how the university experience should be. Being a bit of a techie, I am also strongly drawn to a distance-learning model, and I am particularly keen to consider the possibilities of having flexible curricula and a distributed, trust based accreditation model leveraging (ugh, sorry) the expertise of educators and researchers around the world. I can’t think of who would fund the necessary costs, though. Business should have an interest, but I can’t help but feel they might expect too much control over the curriculum. Students could contribute through a fee mechanism, but I think it would be important to keep the fees very low. Ideally, of course, it would be funded as a public good, but that is probably off the cards for the time being.Governance models depend, to some extent, on the size of the institution. Ideally I would like to see something which works on a similar basis to the W3C model of ‘requests for comment’ being the basis of negotiations involving the whole of the institution’s community. External QA may have cost attached, which would have to be born in mind. Internal QA can be established quite simply, especially with a commitment to transparency. With a decent system in place, QA can be remarkably pleasant to adhere to, improve and assess.Ideally (again, that magic word!) the institution could do a lot of its work through academic staff employed at other institutions. However, that would attract a cost in today’s environment, and that cost may well be higher than employing people directly.

  9. What if affordable, certified and recognised learning, was competively available via providers who deliver a global ‘standard’, anywhere anytime? Future certified providers could be the likes of Blackboard, Pearson, McGraw-Hill alternatives, fitting a government’s service tender and meeting independent academic certification standards.How would traditional, especially unscaled and localised, HE compete? If the expected shortage of, say STEM, graduates can be esaed vis combinations of virtual, blended or real world learning, providing the degree is rigorous, transparent and globally certified, will the world say no?Students could be funded, not institutions, and become their own administrators. Maybe mentored ilearning design is a growth industry.


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