- This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Katherine Emms, a Senior Education & Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation. Edge’s research New Higher Education Institutions in England: A real chance to innovate? can be read here.
The higher education landscape in England has been evolving rapidly thanks in part to the government’s 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (HERA). One way this has happened is through the Act paving the way for the establishment of new higher education institutions (HEIs) across England. These institutions promise to bridge gaps in educational opportunities, enhance employability, and prepare students to address 21st-century challenges. Our recent research sheds light on the experiences of setting up and developing these new HEIs, raising the question: do they contribute to greater diversity in higher education?
Vision and purpose: addressing regional imbalances
One of the key drivers behind the establishment of these new HEIs is the desire to address regional imbalances in higher education opportunities. In some cases, these institutions have been set up in regions where higher education options and access are limited. These new institutions not only increase access to post-18 educational opportunities but also align education with local employer needs and skills shortages, fostering regional economic development.
Conversely, some new HEIs have chosen to establish themselves in major multicultural cities, allowing them to easily attract a diverse range of students, including international students. This approach reflects a commitment to diversity on a global scale, but also reflects the sector’s dependency on international students to provide a sustainable income.
Collaboration at the heart
The process of setting up a new HEI involves creating robust structures and procedures in areas such as student admissions, staff recruitment and external collaborative relationships. Starting a university from scratch allows HEIs to take radical and fresh approaches to these rather than tinkering with the traditional models that already exist. For example, many of the new HEIs claim that academic grades are not the primary judgement for admitting students. Instead they consider the importance of the personal attitudes and the potential of the applicant. They assessed this through the use of broader admission measures, such as the submission of ‘selfie’ videos. Additionally, industry collaborations have played a pivotal role in ensuring that these institutions remain relevant to the needs of local industries. Through partnerships with sector skills groups and industry experts, new HEIs have developed curricula that are up-to-date and directly applicable to the modern workplace.
Some institutions have collaborated with existing universities to validate their degrees, leveraging the resources, processes, and systems of established institutions. This not only streamlines the accreditation process but also adds prestige to the new HEI attempting to attract students to a new, and untested, institution. However, in doing so, it is questionable to what extent new HEIs without their own Degree Awarding Powers (DAPs) can truly bring a radical approach to all their procedures, having to stay within the parameters of their awarding university. It was described that the tick-boxing exercises of the validating university doesn’t apply to the new HEIs because the missions and delivery are different. For example, having to state how many hours of lectures there will be per week when the new HEI has designed a course that eschews lectures in favour of ‘student-centred approaches’. One interview described that their new HEI had therefore experienced ‘mission drift because of our validators’.
Innovative pedagogies? Preparing students for the real world
One striking feature of these new HEIs is their innovative approach to teaching and learning. Many have prioritised interdisciplinarity emphasising the importance of equipping students with knowledge and skills from diverse fields. Problem-based learning, where students collaborate on real-world challenges with industry relevance, is a central teaching method and supports these interdisciplinary ambitions. The purposeful move away from lectures and exams allows space in the curriculum for team working and collaborative activities that support the development of employability skills such as communication and leadership skills.
Moreover, these institutions focus on holistic student development, emphasising not only academic knowledge but also professional and transferable skills. They coach students to become independent and lifelong learners preparing them for success in both their careers and personal lives.
Challenges to innovation
While these new HEIs represent a fresh approach to higher education they face their fair share of challenges. The regulatory process for registering as a Higher Education provider is viewed as slow and complex. Some institutions have mitigated these challenges through strong collaborative teams and external support networks. Nevertheless, working within the realms of the regulatory framework often limits their ability to be truly innovative since HEIs face barriers of having to translate their ‘innovative’ vision into the existing and often restrictive legislative and validating language and processes.
Can new HEIs reshape the sector: true innovation or just new contexts?
Many new HEIs view themselves as innovators in higher education seeking to diversify the sector. By offering alternative approaches to traditional education they aim to create a more dynamic educational landscape. By addressing regional imbalances, fostering industry collaboration, and implementing innovative teaching methods, these institutions are setting the stage for a more dynamic and inclusive higher education landscape. Many of the practices discussed here are present in existing universities that are aware of the need to enhance their offering to ensure they are fit for a rapidly changing world. However, presenting them all together or in different combinations and in new contexts represents ambitious attempts to generate different student outcomes and challenge the sector. The success of these new HEIs is yet to be fully determined, as they are still in their early stages, but their vision and innovative approaches have the potential to help reshape the traditional higher education landscape.