Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

Changing university criteria doesn’t dilute the brand


I’ve had a small twitter row with Sussex University following their Vice Chancellor, Professor Michael Farthing’s opinion piece in the THE attacking the Government’s decision to lower the numerical threshold for university status. Recently in this blog I’d set out the case for a number of small and specialist university colleges to gain access to full university title and the Government have now announced that such a change has been made with immediate effect.

But Michael Farthing is clearly unconvinced. Interestingly there have been very few others in higher education, the media or in politics that have taken such a critical line, but he is worried that ‘creating’ more universities may dilute the UK’s  brand and reputation. Of course this is not the first time that such concerns have been raised. Many colleagues in post 1992 universities have argued against this view for longer than I have. But intriguingly, given the views of Michael Farthing, similar concerns existed when Robbins ushered in the creation of several new universities and the expansion of higher education in the 1960s. Sussex was one such university alongside others like York, Warwick and the University of East Anglia and all are about to celebrate their 50th birthdays.

However, Michael Farthing’s argument hits dodgy ground when he talks about the numbers that you must have to be a proper university. On the Sussex University website there is a fantastic timeline charting its fifty year history. In it the fascinating growth of the institution is described as it moves from hundreds of students in the 1960s towards 4,000 (as far as I can tell about 15-20 years later), the threshold which until last week was the number required for university status. I’m obviously happy to be corrected on the exact numbers and the date when Sussex went from ‘lightweight’ to ‘heavyweight’ but the larger point is that they and others were allowed university title from their very beginning. They were rightly allowed – and funded – to grow steadily and sensibly over time and have developed into excellent, world class universities as a consequence.

For the avoidance of any doubt, I rate Sussex and other universities like it very highly. I said so on twitter and professed my long held admiration for one of its former vice chancellors – the historian Asa Briggs – and for alumni and friends including Ian McEwan and Denis Healey. At GuildHE we have recently had the pleasure of working closely with Simon Fanshawe – the current chair of Sussex University. All are great enthusiasts and ambassadors for Sussex and for higher education generally. I wish them all a very happy 50th birthday indeed. But according to Michael Farthing’s argument, in the periods where such institutions had around 1000 students – or fewer than 4,000 in more recent times – they would not have warranted full university status. And there were never any guarantees that any of the Robbins universities would ultimately grow beyond 4,000 or to the global reputations that they now enjoy. There were as many questions in the 1960s and 1980s as there are today about the need and demand for higher education.

But withholding full university status would have been unnecessarily restrictive at a time when expanding higher education was vital. The world was already changing rapidly in the 1960s when Lord Robbins published his report. Since that time national and international economies have been transformed and the importance of knowledge and the demand for higher education has increased and intensified. Today, we need our higher education sector more than ever before and we shouldn’t be afraid of expanding either higher education participation or the number of universities in the UK. (At this point I should confess my role in helping to write the Leitch Review in 2006 – I am an unashamed supporter of expanding the supply of and demand for human capital). So I strongly believe that Sussex and others deserved their university title from the day they first opened their doors. They were part of a grand social and economic plan. In the same vein, I’d quite like the Government to consider opening a few new universities in the same way again. Other countries are doing so  in new, as well as in more established, economies – though usually they try and create new types of specialist institution and more diverse sectors.

But for now and for the institutions that will benefit from the changes to university title criteria, I am happy to see some kind of parity with the history and steady growth of universities like Sussex. Many of the institutions concerned like the Royal Agricultural College and Norwich University College of the Arts were created in the early 19th century whilst others such as Leeds Trinity and Newman University Colleges opened their doors at the same time as Sussex. And after last week’s decision, all will continue to play a part in a world class higher education sector but with the university title that they deserve every bit as much as Sussex does (and did with many less students thirty, forty or fifty years ago).

Andy Westwood – CEO