Are the odds still stacked against the UK’s ‘challenger institutions’?
With four A*s at A level, Numail Fatima had her pick of universities. The 20-year-old was set to join her friends in the Russell Group, deciding between offers from the universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York, when she saw an advert on YouTube promising something different.
Two years later, Fatima is about to finish a placement at Goldman Sachs before rejoining the “founder cohort” at the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS), one of the capital’s newest higher education providers, for a third year during which she will specialise in data science.
Bright, articulate and career-focused, Fatima could be a poster child for the Westminster government’s efforts over the past decade to encourage the establishment of new “challenger” institutions to boost competition in the higher education sector.
LIS – which offers an American-style liberal arts education in a sector dominated by single-discipline study – felt “fresh”, while traditional institutions seemed “a bit outdated”, says Fatima, speaking to Times Higher Education at the institution’s small home on Whitechapel Road in east London.
She has what LIS’ chief executive Ed Fidoe describes as a “high risk tolerance”. But convincing others to join her has been his biggest challenge. The institution had 60 students in its first year, 30 in its second and is projecting a cohort of 45 this year: tiny numbers in a UK sector where 425,830 took up places to study last year.
Fidoe’s business partner, Swedish venture capitalist Chris Persson, says that while “mavericks” like Fatima had been prepared to enrol from the start, the founders “thought by now we’d have many, many more students. But we don’t.”
This, according to Persson – who co-founded the restaurant reservations site Bookatable – is “not unlike other start-ups” in that “you have to be ambitious but also expect you won’t hit your stride as quickly as you want.” But in other ways, setting up a new higher education institution has been “incomparable” to his other ventures. “As a start-up, you can innovate, do whatever you like. But because we are in the system, we are constrained by it. I’ve aged 20 years in the last five.”
A start-up culture in English higher education is exactly what the government tried to engineer with the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) in 2017. This sought to make it easier for new providers to launch, register with the new Office for Students (OfS) and obtain degree-awarding powers (DAPs) from the start in the hope that this would foster “innovative” types of provision that could compete with established institutions.
“We are opening the doors to new entrants and challenger institutions, all in the interest of increasing the choices available to students,” said the then universities minister Jo Johnson in 2015. And he likened the requirement for new institutions to have their degrees validated by existing institutions to “Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant”.
In reality, however, LIS is one of only 13 providers to have been granted DAPs since 2020, a period in which many established universities have been able to grow significantly. And as the sector prepares to expand further in response to demographic changes and continued overseas demand – and the OfS takes full control of the DAPs process following the exit of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) from the regulatory framework – the issue of how to encourage new providers is set to take centre stage again.
Lord Willetts, the former universities minister who laid the groundwork for the Conservatives’ market-driven approach as universities minister between 2010 and 2014, says what is needed is an expansion to the UK’s higher education system similar to that seen after the Robbins report in the 1960s.
Many Conservative politicians, fixated with “value for money” and so-called rip-off degrees, “have been seduced by the idea you can stop people going [to university] and reverse the trend which has been rolling for 50 years”, he says. “That gets in the way of focusing on the big challenge, the big opportunity. Demographics are changing; there is going to be a surge in young people going to university, and we now have a proper regulator in place, so the circumstances are right for accelerated growth in new providers. If we don’t do anything, we’ll just end up with very large universities.”
But the significant growing pains experienced by the institutions that have launched in the past decade hint that the enabling legislation has merely made what was virtually impossible now highly improbable. Edward Venning, a partner at Six Ravens Consulting, whose recent report for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) shone a light on the challenges faced by small and specialist providers, says that despite all the talk, “it is still not very clear that we want small and new providers at all”.
He concedes that “there are interesting experiments going on but no structural look at how we want to disrupt the sector. There is an appetite for a complete rethink, but no new models have been tried at scale because the sector is not set up to do that. If it was, it could be quite exciting as an overall game changer.”
A former McKinsey consultant who studied engineering but became an actor, LIS’ Fidoe came to education via Michael Gove’s free schools initiative, which sought to improve standards in England’s primary and secondary school sector by establishing new schools independent of local education authorities. Fidoe’s “School 21” opened in Stratford in 2012, the year the Olympics were hosted in the east London district. Its focus on oracy saw pupils aged as young as eight encouraged to give TED-style lectures.
“I started to think early on that the whole education system is narrowing down to the single point of doing one discipline at university,” he says of why he then turned his attention to higher education. “We said: ‘What if you could create a university with a completely different kind of admissions, where you look at grades but also beyond them? What if you could design an interdisciplinary curriculum organised around solving complex problems? Because, for me, our inability to look at issues in the round is the biggest victim of the narrow way we do education.”
LIS therefore offers modules in inequality, the ethics of AI and climate change, promising students a multidisciplinary approach. It has students with very high grades but also those with none. Its director of teaching and learning, Carl Gombrich, who was brought in from UCL to add academic heft to the project, compares LIS to a comprehensive school in its mix of students.
“I think it is unique in that respect: no other university feels like this or challenges teachers in the same way. Students get frustrated for sure, at both ends, but they also recognise it’s important to engage with such a diversity of thought and ability.”
Ambitions to offer a different type of undergraduate education and address long-held problems in the sector have similarly motivated other new launches since the HERA was passed.
Katherine Emms, a researcher with the education charity the Edge Foundation, whose report in July highlighted the potential of new providers, says that institutions are often characterised by their desire to improve social mobility, grow local economies and develop strong links with employers.
James Newby, president and chief executive of the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE), says the current system fails to train enough engineering graduates and those it does attract are not diverse enough in terms of gender, background or education.
NMITE, which opened in 2020 in Hereford, a well-known higher education “cold spot”, bills itself as the first greenfield university to open in the UK in more than 40 years. Backed by local industry and council leaders, it offers lots of contact time, an accelerated programme, an interdisciplinary curriculum and close ties with industry in a way that would be “difficult to combine as a distinct offering in a traditional university”, Newby claims.
“New providers can work more nimbly – we can change things much more quickly than is normally possible in larger institutions,” he says. “We can make decisions and try things that are not constrained by a legacy of systems, processes and, most importantly, by ways of thinking that have been established for years.”
Nevertheless, NMITE only received degree-awarding powers in July, ahead of its first cohort graduating next year; initially, its degrees were validated by the Open University. Nor does it yet have the right to use the university title.
Judy Raper, the dean and chief executive at TEDI-London – another new engineering institution, backed by Arizona State University, King’s College London and UNSW Sydney – says her institution was founded due to concerns about graduates possessing “extensive theoretical knowledge” but lacking soft skills, such as collaboration, project management and commercial awareness.
Starting from scratch has allowed TEDI – which already has its own degree-awarding powers – to design a purpose-built campus and test and adapt its teaching methods, Raper says. Its curriculum is 100 per cent project-based, developed with industry partners. This, Raper says, has “huge appeal to students that aren’t keen on a lecture and exam-based environment”. For some, indeed, it has been the “catalyst behind earning a degree at all”.
But in a sector that is still relatively regulation-heavy – reflecting the fact that students only get one shot at higher education – innovation in provision also requires considerable innovation in negotiating bureaucracy. Setting up LIS, for instance, turned out to be “10 times as hard” as setting up a free school, Fidoe says. “At a school, you have funding taken care of and a [student] catchment that is defined. There is also a shortage of high-quality schools, so if you can get an outstanding [report from schools regulator] Ofsted, you basically don’t have to recruit any more.”
The bureaucracy was, if anything, too lax in the early stages of free schools, he says. Trying to jump through the regulatory hoops in higher education was an altogether different proposition. Fidoe wanted DAPs from the start instead of partnering with an established institution to validate degrees. The problem, he says, is that the height of the hurdle you have to jump to acquire DAPs is unclear. “So we ended up writing 1.2 million words. It was three people working in a dark room for nearly six months, just churning it out.”
LIS received nine inspection visits in its foundation year. After its registration process was delayed, LIS eventually secured DAPs in 2021.
“Now I’m in the club, I don’t want [getting in] to be easy,” Fidoe says. “It is good that it is hard, but there is a view of quality that too many people in the regulatory sector have which, in my view, is the wrong one.”
The focus, according to Fidoe, is on checking whether providers have done what they said they were going to do. “That’s fine, but when you are a start-up, you are trying to adapt and pivot. In a start-up world, this would be the opposite of quality: just doing exactly what you planned three years before.”
TEDI’s Raper agrees about the paucity of guidance on how to meet the requirements to achieve DAPs. Providers are evaluated in a way that pushes them to conform to traditional models, she says, and “the review process is a largely mechanical exercise, conducted by individuals whose expertise is in traditional quality review”. The process, she adds, “did not seem to be risk-based”.
Until March, it was the QAA that carried out inspections of new providers on behalf of the OfS, but this function passed last year to the regulator itself after the QAA left the “designated quality body” role because the required approach conflicted with its work in other parts of Europe. But while alarm bells have been raised about the OfS’ monopoly, it is hoped that it will prompt a new approach to quality assurance.
Raper says the QAA assessed providers across 60 descriptors in five different areas. Failing to satisfy just one could result in rejection, a decision communicated publicly. In such an environment, acquiring DAPs becomes institutions’ sole focus, Raper believes, to the detriment of other launch preparations, such as attracting students, recruiting staff and developing a curriculum.
TEDI was also required to show evidence that students would have access to facilities such as libraries, which required it to sign multi-year contracts for infrastructure and services “before we had certainty on whether our DAPs application was successful”.
Fidoe compares the process to “testing a rocket ship”, in that “you have to do it all at the same time”, with one faulty part liable to lead to catastrophe. “You have to demonstrate that you’ve got students who want to apply, you’ve got a credible faculty, a curriculum, a campus, funding in place – all before you can get the powers. We spent £2 million before we’d even started. We were effectively rolling the dice.”
The OfS published new guidance for those seeking DAPs in July. It said it was committed to “removing unnecessary barriers to entry” and will focus on “assessing things that matter to students” while limiting its requests for information to the evidence it needs to make a “robust judgment”.
Willetts says the regulator has an opportunity to show it can support innovation while upholding standards across the sector. After all, there were no “track record requirements” in the Robbins-era expansion: new institutions became universities from day one. But there remains, as then, a risk that innovative new providers gradually revert to the standard model upon exposure to “the gravitational forces [created by] early specialisation at schools or professional accreditation”, Willetts believes.
Two of the universities that launched in the 1960s – the universities of East Anglia and Kent – are now struggling financially, after losing out on students to the Russell Group following the removal of student number controls in 2015. With even well-established universities such as these in trouble, what hope do new providers have of competing for a larger share of students?
Fidoe believes the Russell Group’s dominance may eventually benefit LIS as the proliferation of graduates with the same grades and degrees will force students to look for new ways to stand out in the employment market. However, he admits that there are always “cynics” surrounding every school-leaver, and the biggest concern is always that they will not get a job at the end of their degree.
Willetts says the sector is characterised by “some very powerful brands, and there are great rewards for incumbency. The only way to cut through is to offer something very distinctive and also link it to organisations that already have strong recognition. It is no accident if you look at the Dyson Institute, it is a new provider of higher education but is linked to an incredibly powerful brand in technology and engineering.”
Does this confine new providers to small niches, destined to operate in the more vocational parts of the sector?
David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, says that while there has not yet been “any paradigm shift in delivery mode”, radical innovation, particularly in Silicon Valley, might eventually hit on a more efficient and economical mechanism to award vocational degrees, which could one day see the likes of AmazonU or GoogleU become big players. But this depends on new providers being better able to challenge the monopoly of the traditional “very costly and hyper-inefficient” version of higher education delivery than they have been able to do so far, Palfreyman adds.
At the elite end, the most recent launch that attempted to challenge the incumbents was the philosopher A. C. Grayling’s for-profit New College of the Humanities (NCH). This launched in a blaze of publicity in 2012, with a base in London’s historic Bloomsbury neighbourhood, £18,000-a-year fees and an Oxbridge-style tutorial approach taught by big-name academics such as Richard Dawkins. Capturing a lot of political attention, NCH was even credited with influencing the HERA. However, after struggling to attract investment, it was taken over by Boston’s Northeastern University in 2019. Now based in St Katharine Docks in the east of the city, it is known as Northeastern University London.
Palfreyman – who is also bursar of New College, Oxford, which had issues with NCH over its similar name – says elite universities are unlikely to be threatened by new entrants as they are “protected by…the hefty brand-value lead granted by historic incumbency and the cost and time it takes to build a brand, which is largely based on research output and generations of alumni ensconced in professions.”
Six Ravens’ Venning laments that, the HERA notwithstanding, “there is no actual, real market” in English higher education because, with loan-eligible domestic fees capped at £9,250 a year, “there is no price differential” between institutions. Hence, “students select on a very narrow number of indicators: status, location and course”. If there was a way for new English institutions to acquire scale before they enter the system – as the post-Robbins institutions did – they would “be all right”. But the need to start small and then grow, when they have little power to invest, adds to the “massive incumbent advantage”.
“I’d love to see someone coming in and creating a new multi-faculty institution, but you are looking at an order of investment that is not going to be immensely appealing for a venture capitalist,” he says.
NMITE’s Newby acknowledges the government’s “clear aim to encourage more new providers, more new models, more choice for students and a more straightforward route to degree-awarding powers for these providers”. However, he adds that this rhetorical support needs to be accompanied by “a clear strategy about how it will support” new providers.
“The processes involved could be streamlined and structures to support innovation and new providers could be set up to provide a regulatory ‘safe space’ to test new ideas and approaches,” he suggests.
“The lessons from the testing of new models by new providers will be of enormous value to the sector as a whole. They should be embraced, and the risks involved should be viewed as a consequence of innovation and shared as learnings, rather than creating a barrier to entry.”
The world is their oyster? New start-ups around the globe
New universities must operate like Trojan Horses, according to Fred Swaniker, founder of the African Leadership University. “You set it up so it looks ‘normal’. But you package all the innovative stuff inside,” he tells the authors of a forthcoming book The New Global Universities.
The book’s authors, Noah Pickus, associate provost at Duke University, and Bryan Penprase, vice-president for sponsored research and external academic relations at California’s Soka University of America, have their own metaphor for what it is like to bridge the chasm between the conception and the opening of a new institution. As Pickus puts it, “There are these trolls waiting underneath who say: ‘You don’t look like what has always existed.’ You can say to them: ‘Yes, but look at all the problems with what does exist.’ But then you are telling the trolls they are the problem.”
Needless to say, this is not what the trolls want to hear. “So what you have to do is simultaneously work very closely with accreditors to make it look like you are doing something that is nowhere near as radical as what you are actually doing.”
The New Global Universities, published in December, focuses on eight ventures, ranging from Yale-NUS College, which Penprase helped found but which has now been subsumed into the National University of Singapore, and Minerva University, the much-hyped online institution, for which Pickus was chief academic officer, to Fulbright University Vietnam and Ashesi University in Ghana. With higher education variously accused of being outdated, restrictive and not worth the investment, new universities can provide an antidote, Pickus and Penprase argue.
“What’s great about universities is also what’s problematic about them,” says Pickus. “They have been around for so long and really do stand the test of time, but they often do this by throttling new possibilities.”
While existing universities can change, he says, they will always bend towards doing things in the same way as they have done when what is needed is experimentation.
“A university is a very complex system; it has multiple irreconcilable tensions within it that are never fully resolved,” says Penprase, an astrophysicist. “You usually end up with a bundle of half-compromises that mean you can only ever partially fulfil the maybe five or six simultaneous missions you are working on that all point you in different directions.”
By contrast, “new entrants have the chance to offer an entirely new bundle of mission, curriculum, organisational structure and funding mechanism,” he says. “They have agility and power to then zoom in on unmet needs within their country and the world. They are trying to change the game of higher education and they have a blank page and the freedom you would never get in a traditional institution.”
But the idea of a blank page is also something of an illusion, Penprase admits, “because within all students, all faculty, all employers there is a vision of what a university should be”.
What fundamentally differentiates the academy from industry is that “prestige matters more than anything else”, says Pickus, and new entrants have to find a way to manufacture their own to stand a chance. Minerva involved former Harvard University president Larry Summers, while Yale-NUS inherited some of the stature of its parent institutions. But such connections with the establishment also come with risk-aversion; Penprase believes that Yale-NUS became too much of an “outlier” for NUS, which is why it eventually folded.
In some parts of the world, launching new universities represents the first time that citizens have been able to imagine education in their own way, moving on from colonial legacies that shaped their earlier institutions, Penprase says. And in emerging sectors that lack globally renowned incumbents, the acquisition of prestige is less difficult – particularly when new institutions are backed by the patronage and resources of the state. Examples include Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which opened in 2009, and Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, founded two years earlier.
In more established sectors, things are harder. In the US, many column inches were generated by the launch of the University of Austin in 2021, with its hiring of several academics – including Kathleen Stock and Niall Ferguson – who oppose the supposed “woke” agenda of mainstream universities. But the university is targeting just 100 students on its launch in autumn 2024.
Other new US universities have focused on scale, capitalising on their ability to offer American degrees online to people around the world. The University of the People, for instance, started in 2009 and now serves 126,000 students from 200 different countries, offering tuition-free degrees in health sciences and business.
There is “huge demand for new models” in the US, according to the university’s president, Shai Reshef, largely due to the cost of higher education and the changing demographics of people who need to access it with the shift towards lifelong learning. But falling numbers of 18-year-olds mean that the market conditions for new institutions are not favourable.
In Australia, the recent Universities Accord acknowledged that new universities are needed to cater for a predicted doubling of student numbers in the coming years.
“There is no question that we need more places,” says Vin Massaro, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne. “We’ve got some of the largest universities in the world and they can’t get any bigger, so, inevitably, there will need to be more universities.”
A few private universities have launched in Australia in the wake of the establishment of the country’s first, Bond University, in 1989. However, “I’m not sure they are offering something completely different,” Massaro says. They are “just replicating what universities are doing but allowing you to come in with lower scores or offering distance education.”
A further complicating factor is the new rules requiring institutions to conduct a proportion of world-leading research to qualify for university title. Those that do not qualify are designated as university colleges, but such institutions will always be seen as inferior, according to Massaro.
There is some talk of the Australian government creating new universities with public funds. Another option could be for parts of existing universities to be broken off and launched as separate entities. But Massaro sees the establishment of more private universities in Australia as unlikely.
“If anyone wanted to create a university, they would want to be assured of getting university status so they could compete for students on what they would see as an equal basis,” he says. And the current system does not allow for that.