New providers: Levelling up or just noisy upstarts?

Development Monthly | #7 March 2022 | New providers: Levelling up or just noisy upstarts?

James Newby

Chief Operating Officer,

Can the Higher Education sector keep up with the new “levelling up” agenda of skills training, vocational courses, widening participation and community regeneration? Universities are constantly innovating and developing their offerings to address these topics, but it is new providers that are emerging with missions built entirely around these issues. Does this mean that new providers are the future of Higher Education, and we should be doing more to encourage and enable them, or should we just let them find their own way as a “noisy neighbour” to the prestigious institutions they seek to challenge?

My institution, the New Model Institute for Engineering and Technology (NMITE), launched in 2020 after years of planning and recently welcomed its first cohorts of students. So now is a good time to reflect on my own experience of working in an HE start-up after a career in professional services of a traditional university, and to consider the role those new providers like NMITE might play in the future of the sector.

Genuinely new providers are rare. Most smaller institutions emerge from some precursor organisation – often via a merger or demerger. And they are usually located where they have the best chance of recruiting (often international) students and working with employers. This normally means London.

NMITE is different because it is one of only a handful of new institutions built in recent decades entirely from scratch. We have no parent institution and we are small in a sector where scale counts. But our mission is clear and two pronged: we aim to change the way students learn engineering in the UK and play a role in the economic regeneration of our region.

In describing NMITE and its mission, my academic colleagues would want me to highlight the distinctive features of NMITE’s academic philosophy, and there are many. NMITE students learn in multi-purpose studios, not lecture theatres, on project based challenges provided by industrial and community partners. The programmes are accelerated so a full year shorter than normal and include, along with all the expected engineering content, substantial elements of humanities, the arts and business. It’s integrated engineering with the emphasis on integration. Admissions processes are almost entirely contextual – A level maths or physics are not prerequisites for entry and the programme is designed to ensure that people with less academic backgrounds can succeed. Other institutions include elements of these in their programmes, but only NMITE brings it all together into a completely new academic offering and learning experience. Our students are not taught engineering, they learn how to be working engineers.

But I am not an academic, so I want to focus on the other aspect of NMITE’s mission, its role in local economic regeneration. This aim, innovative and challenging when first conceived a few years ago is now becoming part of today’s standard political discourse. NMITE was even included as an exemplar of the role new providers could play in driving skills based economic growth in “left behind” regions in the government’s recent Levelling Up White Paper. NMITE has also been endorsed at the despatch box in recent weeks by the Secretaries of State for both Education and Levelling Up. Perhaps we are becoming more mainstream than we intended!

Universities have made enormous progress in recent years with widening access from under-represented groups to their institutions. But NMITE addresses one access and participation problem that many universities cannot. Social mobility tends to involve some degree of geographical mobility. Regions with high levels of social deprivation often include populations unable or unwilling to move for many reasons, not all negative. These are often strong communities, with deeply ingrained social and family networks that make it difficult for people leave to pursue new opportunities. Martin Sandbu writes beautifully about this in his book “The Economics of Belonging” in the context of labour mobility, but I believe it applies as strongly to the mobility of students, especially those accessing HE outside the normal 18 year old, A Level/UCAS entry route. If an employee cannot move to another region to advance their career, how can they be expected to travel to a distant university to learn new skills?

If people from these communities cannot easily up-sticks and move regions to go to university, it follows that one solution might be to place a university near to them. Herefordshire is a stupendously beautiful corner of England, but a county with depressingly durable social and economic challenges and, before NMITE, one of only a couple in the UK with no university to call its own. NMITE emerged partly to help solve the national problem of a shortage of work ready engineers but also to play a role locally in driving a skills based economic regeneration of a Higher Education “cold spot.”

My personal experience of working in a small innovative start-up after a career in a traditional university feels a little like progressing from a gentle voyage on a sedate canal barge to white water kayaking. I always feel that I could capsize our small institution single handedly with one mistake and that is thrilling and scary at the same time. When I first discussed joining NMITE with its trustees, one of them told me that they wanted their COO to be someone who “understood how universities work but who would not try to recreate a traditional university out of NMITE.” That has been my one sentence job description ever since. For me to deliver on that job description NMITE must remain innovative (we left the word “new” in the title as a permanent challenge to us) whilst also delivering the boring/grown up stuff like financial sustainability and regulatory compliance.

But is it working? So far, there is much to celebrate. NMITE is attracting students from all the backgrounds we hoped for:  career changers, mature students, young people who felt that traditional universities would not be right for them. Some even switched from other institutions where they were unhappy, and they are now thriving. Most students apply direct, not through UCAS and almost half are based locally so have not had to move to join us. Although NMITE’s approach won’t be right for everyone – the appeal of comfy lecture theatres and long summer holidays will always be strong – it is providing a new option for many people not suited to traditional undergraduate programmes at established universities.

The boring stuff is much harder in a small start-up institution. Higher Education regulation is simply not fit for the purposes of new providers. It is designed to oversee large bureaucracies and, because it is ostensibly risk based, new providers end up suffering a higher regulatory burden than larger institutions, despite being less able to shoulder it. The opposite of the approach taken to business where regulation is used to stimulate and encourage enterprise. Innovation, in one form or another, will always be the single main point of a new provider so good regulation should be enabling, not constraining, if it is to support this.

New providers are carving out a vital role in the HE landscape which is distinct from traditional universities but not, in my view, a threat to them. NMITE may be small and still local, but the opportunity is national and potentially transformational. Our model could be readily “lifted and shifted” to other towns and communities too small to host a large university but in desperate need of the skills and employment based regeneration that good civic institutions can stimulate. These communities are normally far from London and the Southeast. Just imagine the potential impact of a wave of “red wall” mini-universities.

Getting NMITE off the ground has been hard work, grindingly hard work. But anything worth doing is always hard.

Does it represent the future of HE? Who knows? I do know that it is now providing an HE future for people that was not available to them before. And that’s not a bad start. 

James will be delivering the opening plenary at this year’s AUA Annual Conference and Exhibition, 7 to 8 July
Find out more information about the AUA Annual Conference here
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Join the discussion @The_AUA #Develop or scroll to the bottom for comments

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