This article is more than 1 year old

How can smaller providers progress their university ambitions?

Spurgeon's College has gained degree awarding powers. Helen Stokley and Philip McCormack explain how it was done
This article is more than 1 year old

Helen Stokley is Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Head of Institute at Spurgeon's College

Philip McCormack is the Principal and Head of Institute at Spurgeon's College

Across the UK, higher education institutions are coming under growing pressure to show the value of their teaching and social contribution.

At the political level, the government is increasingly questioning the value of higher education degrees and challenging HEIs to develop clearer pathways into post-study work for their students.

A new Higher Education Bill, due to be brought before the Westminster parliament by the end of 2022, is widely expected to include placing recruitment caps on degrees deemed to be less socially valuable. This may threaten the financial viability of HEIs which lack clear science, technology, engineering, and maths specialisms. This has created a torrid landscape for smaller HEIs who are looking to develop and enhance their value proposition, particularly for those with ambitions to achieve university status.

Even under these conditions, however, progress is possible. Following a four-year process, Spurgeon’s College has this year been granted Full Degree Awarding Powers (DAPs), meaning that we will be able to grant degrees in our own name from September 2022 and act as a validating institution for other HEIs. This is how we did it.

The Spurgeon’s College experience

In 2019, Spurgeon’s College’s initial application for registration with the OfS was rejected. In this instance, the OfS determined that the College had passed four of its five tests for registration but did not meet its financial sustainability test. While the College fundamentally disagreed with this financial assessment – and we spoke openly about our disagreement – we worked successfully, together with the OfS, partners and friends across our communities, to deliver a successful decision from the OfS within four months of the original rejection.

This episode led us to reflect on how important it was to be deeply ingrained in our communities – to have sustaining relationships that helped us get through this existential issue. It also reinforced to us the importance of clearly evidencing the processes and institutional transformations required for OfS approval and recognition. This was particularly with a view to progressing our ambition of becoming Croydon’s first home-grown university.

Following our registration acceptance by the OfS, we took steps to better understand the existing gaps in our processes which would prevent us from securing DAPs. This included conducting an institution-wide gap analysis, and assessing how our academic governance framework needed to develop. This process highlighted essential structural changes – to address these we developed shadow processes mirroring the University of Manchester and its relevant structures for providing degrees and certifying other HEIs.

The work to develop these new structures and shadow processes presented a significant volume of change and constituted a key challenge across our four-year transition. This challenge included working to prevent cross-contamination on our committees – which for institutions such as Spurgeon’s College can be a difficult obstacle given the reduced size of the staffing and executive community – and providing robust training for our academics and professional staff across the college to evidence our preparedness for securing DAPs.

It was vital, too, to develop increasingly robust mechanisms for assessing the college’s progress against the best practice quality standards for HEIs. This involved bringing onboard a Quality Manager to provide assurance monitoring of our updated governance structures, with a view to evidencing our maturity as an institution and our willingness to engage self-critically with areas where further progress was needed.

While implementing these steps, we worked to meticulously note the key changes taking place across the College, the observed impact on staff and students, and the consistency of structures compared to the University of Manchester. During the observation and visits phase of our DAPs application the College submitted approximately 1,000 pieces of evidence to the QAA team. Due to Covid-19, the QAA team conducted their scrutiny of the College virtually throughout the entire process.

What we learned

Smaller HEIs like us are faced with an increasingly challenging external environment within which to operate. From our experience of moving towards securing DAPs, there are a few reflections which may be of value to other small HEIs in the same position and with similar aspirations to Spurgeon’s College.

Setting a clear strategic target at the outset was vital in ensuring all our work was guided by this overarching goal. Maintaining the consistency of our efforts towards this target, particularly in setting up and administering new structures throughout the College, was also essential in allowing us to make the necessary progress and evidence this to the QAA to illustrate our ability to administer DAPs.

We would encourage other HEIs progressing along this path to place a high premium on documenting in detail what changes they have introduced, how they have positively impacted staff, students, and the administration of the institution writ large, and how these new structures reflect those of established DAP providers.

And we learned that we needed to take our stakeholders, partners, and communities with us on the journey. It is a long and complex process, so you will need to draw on the expertise and guidance of your friends and colleagues throughout.

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