University centres – challenger institutions

One of the strands of the White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy is that it will be made easier to set up new universities.  It is interesting, as we have noted, that the two examples given consistently by ministers are University Campus Suffolk and Hereford’s proposed New Model in Technology and Engineering.  Jo Johnson has been talking about the ability of ‘challenger institutions’ to deal with ‘cold spots’ in higher education provision.  In this regard he is returning to previous government policy which supported new ‘university centres’.  This became formalised, such that in 2009 HEFCE ran a ‘University Challenge’ exercise to approve new centres, but as support for these was left to the next Spending Review this has not been taken forward.

Although not necessarily very high profile nationally, there are a wide variety of ‘university centres’ around the country.  Some are independent operations, but most are parts of further education colleges given a special focus.  As ‘university’ is a protected name, there is an official process for applying for ‘university centre’ title , although this is under review.

University centres sit on a spectrum that runs from a full campus of a university to a quite small amount of franchised provision in a college.  Indeed, there is anger in Hastings that Brighton’s campus there is to be downgraded to a university centre.   What is clear is that these centres are at the heart of meeting the need for local provision, if, by necessity, some of their offering is rather limited.    Certainly local councils and LEPs see these as important, and are continuing to support them – as in a new centre for King’s Lynn


New University Centre at the College of West Anglia in King’s Lynn


University centres are in a tradition of the delivery of higher education via branches. Some branches have gone on to full independence; both Dundee and Newcastle were city outposts of their nearby universities.   However, it isn’t inevitable that a branch or university centre will thrive.  Attempts in Basingstoke and Swindon have closed, it looks as if Milton Keynes isn’t happy enough with its University Centre, and Scarborough are swapping provider.  Sometimes the ambition of a town isn’t matched by the provision that a university centre can offer – property developers or council leaders can have unrealistic expectations.  What is clear is that these ‘challenger institutions’ offer a much better chance of delivering widening participation to higher education than London-based for-profit colleges.

University Centres

Where are the centres?  I haven’t found a definitive list, but these all appear to use ‘University Centre’ (or ‘Campus’) in capital letters.  It’s hard to check whether they have official sanction*, so this is an unofficial list – I may easily have missed some.

University Campus Barnsley (Barnsley College & University of Huddersfield)

University Centre, Blackpool (Blackpool & the Fylde College & University of Lancaster)

University Centre Blackburn (St Mary’s College & Liverpool Hope & UCLAN)

University Centre at Blackburn College (Lancaster University)

University Centre, Boston (Boston College)

Bradford College University Centre 

Holy Cross University Centre (Bury) (Holy Cross College & Liverpool Hope, Edge Hill, Salford and Newman universities)

University Centre, Crawley (Central Sussex College & Chichester University)

University Centre Colchester (Colchester Institute & University of Essex)

University Centre Croydon (Croydon College & University of Sussex)

University Centre Doncaster (Doncaster College & University of Hull)

University Centre Farnborough (Farnborough College 

University Centre Grimsby (Grimsby College & University of Hull)

University Centre Harlow (Harlow College & Anglia Ruskin University)

Hartpury University Centre (Associate faculty of UWE)

Hereford University Centre (Herefordshire and Ludlow College & University of Worcester)

Tresham University Centre (Kettering) (Tresham College & Universities of Northampton & Bedfordshire)

University Centre Kings Lynn (College of West Anglia & Anglia Ruskin University)

Knowsley University Centre (Knowsley Community College)

University Centre Milton Keynes (University of Bedfordshire)

University Centre Peterborough (Peterborough Regional College & Anglia Ruskin University)

University Centre St Helens (St Helens College & Chester, UCLAN, Liverpool John Moores & Sheffield Hallam)

University Centre, Solihull (Solihull College & University of Warwick, Oxford Brookes University, Newman University, Birmingham City University and Coventry University)

University Centre Southend (South East Essex College & Essex and University of the Arts)

University Centre Shrewsbury (University of Chester)

University Centre Stamford (Bishop Grossteste, Bedfordshire & Northampton)

University Centre Stockport College (Liverpool John Moores &  Manchester Met)  

University Centre Telford (Telford College of Arts and Technology & University of Wolverhampton)

University Centre Thurrock (South East Essex College & Essex and University of the Arts)

University Centre Tonbridge (University of Kent)

University Centre Weston (Weston College & Bath Spa & UWE)

University Centre Worthing (Northbrook College & University of Brighton)

Yeovil College University Centre (Yeovil College & UWE, Bournemouth, Gloucestershire & Trinity St Davids)


* As the ‘university centre’ is generally a subsidiary, the HEFCE Register of Providers returns none of them in a search – potentially an issue that may hamper confidence in them.


Civic Universities – Continuity & Change

For all the talk of disruptive technologies, some aspects of higher education remain wonderfully stable.  Take the continuing civic interest in founding universities.  Milton Keynes Council has set up a commission to report on a vision for its future where a key part, a ‘big project’, is a new university.

The commission, chaired by Sir Peter Gregson – VC at nearby Cranfield (and former VC at Queen’s Belfast),  suggests the founding of a ‘substantial’ university (as opposed to the Open University or the succession of University Centres that the city has had).  This university will be different:

MK:IT will be the first university anywhere designed as a response to the challenges facing cities today and in the future – a radically different approach to how cities, businesses and higher education can develop and grow together. Thus, MK:IT’s mission will be to promote research, teaching and practice that provide realistic solutions to the problems facing fast-growing cities. These include moving people and things around without congestion or pollution, sustaining healthy inclusive communities, encouraging enterprise and creativity and designing human spaces for 21st century working and living.

Furthermore, the university will be very different because it will be focused on four ‘platforms’ – as shown in this diagram:


For all its difference, the university can’t escape the classical portico that’s framed universities – at least since 1826 when UCL marked its modernity with an emphatic return to classical architecture.  Maybe this is intended as a reassurance, however, as the next diagram shows that the portfolio will be made up of just about every higher education fad in current circulation:


No doubt, if the project goes forward, some of these will fall by the wayside.  The cynic will note that if Milton Keynes really does want to retain more of its young people who go off to university elsewhere, then they’ll need to end up offering the single honours degrees that they want to do.

What is encouraging, is that the formation of a university is still seen as one of the best things that an aspirational town or city can do.  This has been the spur to the development of universities throughout the ages; from medieval communes in Italy, to frontier states in America, through to Victorian industrial cities.   When government funding was available, the UK has run competitions between communities to get a university – the UGC ran an exercise in the early 1960s and in this century we have had waves of bidding for support for university centres.  As we’ve noted this year, government has been citing civic initiatives in Suffolk and Hereford as among their ‘challenger institutions’.

So, good luck to Milton Keynes.  It’s interesting to see their commission strike out for a new direction in higher education.  They could, of course, just opt to entice an existing provider to move there.   That’s an approach that the city has tried before…