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Specialist institutions and the HE Green Paper

Alison Pickard

Alison Pickard

Policy Researcher
Universities UK
Symphony orchestra

The specialisms represented within the relatively small membership of Universities UK’s Specialist Institutions Forum, chaired by Nigel Carrington of University of the Arts London, are remarkably diverse; they range from medical and veterinary sciences, through humanities and business to the visual and performing arts.

What has been striking is, despite this diversity, the unanimity with which specialist institutions have responded to the HE Green Paper . There is much in the Green Paper to which specialist institutions can respond positively, not least the focus given to teaching and to the centrality of the student experience.

Despite the diversity of disciplines, specialist institutions share a great deal in common, including the vocational nature of many of their programmes and the strong engagement with the respective professions and industries for which their students are prepared.  To deliver such programmes requires not only highly specialist equipment and facilities but also intensive, small group and personalised tuition often delivered by industry professionals. The additional cost of such provision is recognised through the institution-specific targeted allocation  that most specialist institutions receive.

Specialist institutions are well-versed in the challenges of delivering excellent teaching, the outcomes of which are evidenced, for example, by high graduate employability rates and the ‘world leading’ nature of provision that those in receipt of institution-specific funding are required to demonstrate. Many of these challenges are subject-specific. If the TEF introduced teaching metrics, it would be vitally important for specialist institutions that these were devised by subject specialists with the knowledge and experience of what subject delivery in a specialist institution entails.

Specialist institutions would also wish to look carefully at the suggested linking of funding incentives to the TEF and at any linkage with fee caps or ‘grading’ of institutions based on multiple levels of excellence. Such fine gradations could be difficult to make sense of, particularly in an international context. For institutions with a high international profile, there would be a concern about any unintended consequences that could potentially damage the overall impression of the sector. A further concern is that the administration of such systems could be particularly burdensome for specialist institutions, many of which are small and do not have the administrative resources or support structures of larger, multi-faculty universities. The results could also be counter-productive if the focus moved too far away from the quality of provision towards financial outcomes. Whatever approach is adopted, it would also need to be able to capture the totality of what specialist institutions do, not only in teaching and research, but also in terms of public and industry engagement andbroader community engagement, through arts and educational programmes, for example.  These, together with personalised learning, skills and career development and support for entrepreneurship mean that specialist institutions offer a highly dynamic learning environment and enriching student experience.

The interdependence between financial sustainability and the student experience is especially critical in specialist institutions. So while the focus on a high quality

student experience of the proposed Office for Students is welcome, specialist institutions would support and underline the wider perspective that an Office for Students and Higher Education could bring.

Integral to the delivery of their programmes are the high proportions of part-time or visiting staff employed by specialist institutions. These are often leading industry professionals who bring valuable experiences from outside the core academic profession.  Specialist institutions would consequently take issue with any suggestion that the proportions of academic staff on ‘permanent contracts’ could be damaging to the student experience. On the contrary, the inability to recruit such highly valued and talented professionals on flexible contractual arrangements would seriously impede the quality of specialist teaching programmes.

In research, there is strong consensus for the dual funding principle to be retained, and support for bringing together the seven Research Councils under the umbrella of Research UK especially if this helps to support interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research.  By the same token, it is important that differences in the nature of research in different disciplines are recognised. The REF systemcurrently promotes high quality research and motivates all institutions to invest in and value research, something that specialist institutions would wish to see vigorously protected, including a system of peer review by subject specialists.

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