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Small, specialist and practice-based universities are vital to competition and innovation in higher education

  • 27 April 2023
  • By Edward Venning

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published the first holistic picture of small and special-focus universities in Size is Everything: What small, specialist and practice-based providers tell us about the higher education sector (HEPI Report 160). This makes the case for major policy, structural and regulatory changes to increase competition, innovation and sector diversity in higher education. 

Small and special-focus universities now represent 40% of providers in England and 15% in Scotland, and are the key providers of practice-based education in Britain. Specialism is essential to institutional responsiveness for vital sectors, such as medicine, agriculture and the creative industries. But special-focus institutions face resource scarcity, a hostile operating environment with diseconomies of scale and barriers to stability and growth.

Report findings include:

  • Small and special-focus providers need help to overcome diseconomies of scale, capital investment and research requirements.
  • Policymakers need a firmer grasp of size, specialism and practice-based education, as the sector broadens with new market entrants and access to degree-awarding powers.
  • Specific aspects of higher education should be de-regulated to address barriers to entry and growth for small providers and overlooked disciplines.
  • Mergers are a major risk to identity and specialism. Small provider clusters need structural support for lower risk alliances, including shared services, managed networks, consortia, strategic alliances and joint ventures.

Edward Venning, author of the report and Partner at Six Ravens Consulting LLP, said:

Britain’s small and special-focus universities are the magic ingredient in UK higher education. This is the scale at which almost every great institution got its start. These universities are a mainstay of global expertise in key fields. But today, they face major barriers to growth and expertise, mocking claims to sector diversity and dynamism.

Professor Simon Ofield-Kerr, Vice-Chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts, who supported the publication, said:

This is an important report because it’s time to change the rules of the game. Special-focus institutions must be valued for the focused ecologies they create and the different approaches to learning and teaching they pursue, rather than for a predetermined collection of subjects.

In terms of creativity, a practice-based, experimental and industry-engaged approach is evidently one of the most effective ways to understand, interpret and produce the worlds in which we live.

This vital part of the sector needs to build common cause across institutions that may look very different but share core interests in new technologies, economies and global challenges.

Sandra Booth, Director of Policy & External Relations at Council for Higher Education Art & Design, said:

This excellent report highlights the distinctive nature, value and agency of practice-based education in ‘small and specialist’ institutions while advocating for better understanding of the distinctiveness of practice-based pedagogies, resource-intensive provision and opportunities for enhanced research impact. The analysis can be equally applied to specialist provision within large and multi-functional providers, particularly in studio based Creative Arts and Design higher education, where, despite differences in scale across the sector, there are many shared aims, challenges and discipline-specific missions.

My hope is that the recommendations within the report enable the collaborative efforts of those with a ‘quieter voice’ in the sector to be ‘understood on their own terms’ as potential policy makers rather than policy takers.

Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher, said:

London has the largest concentration of small, specialist providers of any UK region and many are world leading in their fields. It is, however, right to ask whether these providers are merely surviving, rather than thriving, under the current weight of regulation.

Small, specialist institutions represented by London Higher face some of the highest course delivery costs in the country and are unable to cross-subsidise due to their narrow disciplinary focus. They also have fewer professional service staff, leading to a disproportionate regulatory burden. To ensure these providers remain a jewel in the crown of UK higher education for generations to come, it is high time we create a regulatory system that appreciates their distinctiveness and needs.

Carol Rudge, Partner at HW Fisher, who sponsored the report, said:

This report showcases the character, collective challenges and opportunities of specialism and small size in the sector. Anchored in a culture which places great emphasis on the nurture of the individual, they have tremendous innovation potential, balanced by the challenge of delivery in similar ways to large institutions with greater resources at their fingertips.

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. It is UK-wide, independent and non-partisan, and funded by organisations and higher education institutions that want to see vibrant policy discussions.
  2. Edward Venning is Founding Partner at Six Ravens Consulting LLP, working with leading special-focus providers on their most important communication, governance and policy challenges. He has served on the executive board of University of the Arts London (UAL), the UK’s largest special-focus institution, and of Southbank Centre. Before that, he was a senior civil servant.
  3. The report has been kindly sponsored by Norwich University of the Arts and HW Fisher, which is a top 30 UK chartered accountancy firm.

1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    Recommendation 4: Government policy should change to include a consistent, adequate, enduring and straightforward premium to recognise the full cost of teaching practice-based
    subjects, in order to provide sustainable paths to growth.

    Knowing the “cost to deliver” element for every HE qualification is essential to establishing a fair and appropriate model for financing HE. This should apply to all subjects and qualifications not just “practiced-based subjects”.

    Having this information would also help in reforming the current student loan and repayment model so that higher cost to deliver subjects could be matched with higher student loans for these subjects so that individual students paid a higher amount for their higher cost education.

    This would be a much fairer model as higher cost subjects usually indicate which careers result in higher salaries.

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