It is no great surprise to see Liverpool John Moores University formally announce today that their fees will be £9,000 across the board. What makes them notable for writers of copy everywhere is that they are the first ‘post-1992’ institution to formally declare that they will be charging the full whack. But others are expected to follow them, and they will in the coming days and weeks.
But a lot has changed on the higher education landscape since 1992. The binary divide between older universities and those that grew out of the polytechnics has become increasingly blurred and irrelevant to the modern discourse on HE. Indeed it has been dying a slow death, and this week’s events should be the final word on this obsolete view of the sector.
Most of the new universities, awarded such status since ‘92, have emerged with global-reach and a sound base of research and innovation. They project themselves with confidence, and in most cases have every right to. They have a good story to tell about the quality of provision they offer and the world-leading research that they undertake. They house centers of excellence in almost every discipline. They attract some of the best and brightest academics.
University Alliance is a relatively new mission group and notable for the fact that it represents a mixture of pre and post 1992 institutions. These institutions are bound together by a considerably more modern narrative about business engagement and innovation. They generally also have an above sector average number of departments carrying out world leading, 4* research – much of which with a commercial focus. Mission groups used to be about a policy war between old (Russell Group) and new (Million+). University Alliance and institutions like their member; Liverpool John Moores, show how this debate is no longer relevant to the current state of the sector.
Let’s look at another Alliance member that has yet to declare its fee levels – Northumbria University. The Daily Mail last week ran a rare and fascinating profile of the elusive Jonathan Ive, Apple’s VP Industrial Design – responsible for designing the iMac, iPhone, iPod and iPad. The article pondered; ‘how did a British polytechnic graduate become the design genius behind £200million Apple’? As if being educated in a world-leading design department in the then Newcastle Polytechnic, now Northumbria University, could be anything short of a tremendous leg-up in the world of design. The same world-class department is there today and is a great example to show that not every discipline grew out of narrow academic elites. The UK has a long tradition of great design, and this is exactly the sort of environment in which it evolved, thrived and led the world. Should Northumbria be any less confident about the value of its provision than Liverpool John Moores? Could they possibly take the risk of charging less than 9k when that is where most of their peers will position themselves? Time will tell.
Private providers are becoming more ubiquitous, and if David Willetts gets his way then the door will be open for many more new providers of HE to enter the landscape. Pearson, Edexcel et al – their presence in the degree awarding market could have radical effects on the shape of the sector. The ‘private’ label will shortly become a misnomer as the majority of HE income shifts away from the state and towards the graduate. Instead, we will soon be talking about ‘new’ and ‘old’ providers. And these new providers could include others such as Further Education Colleges and more besides.
The pre and post 1992 divide looks like an irrelevant distinction today. Even more so now it has become clear that the price of courses will not fall along those obsolete dividing lines. In five years time, describing providers of higher education in those terms will look positively prehistoric. The sector is changing fast, and we need to keep up.