1998 has many parallels with 2018, at least as far as higher education policy and practice goes. I’ve had a look through my notebooks for the first term of the new year and we face some of the same issues, but there are some contrasts as well. As a young academic registrar, there was a sense of precariousness, some of that connected with the issues facing the college but also the sector acting on the Dearing Report, and a government starting to hit its stride. There was tension about HEFCE’s new funding methodology, which would see institutions migrate to within 5% of a standard unit of resource measured by FTEs, which were controlled by the MASN.
There were two specific challenges facing King Alfred’s College: the termination of its nursing contract and the conversion of the neighbouring La Sainte Union College into the New College of the University of Southampton.
The move of nursing education into universities is a fascinating story, and it should be told properly. King Alfred’s had merged with its local nurse training providers and had a substantial number of students on nursing and midwifery programmes (I remember vividly my first midwifery validation event – which prepared me well for later encounters). A bidding exercise had been run and many smaller providers had lost their contracts to offer nursing and midwifery courses, including King Alfred’s. In early 1998 the college started to plan to phase out a third of its income. The contract was taught out and a lasting memory is how the staff involved in the provision handled this situation with the utmost professionalism.
Another challenge came from the college’s validating partner: the University of Southampton had ‘merged’ with La Sainte Union College (LSU). LSU had succumbed to a second poor Ofsted inspection, it had not diversified sufficiently to survive without its teacher training contact and it was merging with its validating university: Southampton. This was fine, but Southampton had come up with a new vision for LSU as ‘New College’, to act as a new access part of the university, combining with its adult education department. For King Alfred’s, the potential revitalisation of LSU as a part of its validating university was a major concern. It also forced a volte face on the part of Southampton who’d been looking to avoid ‘unhelpful competition’ between members of its validating ‘family’ but now found itself trying to compete.
The Dearing report had positioned higher education firmly in a lifelong learning context – meeting the needs of the learning society. The college had extensive CPD offering for teachers and a long established part-time evening degree, but was responding to HEFCE funding streams to engage adult learners.
Notes from a conference in March 1998 show that developing a culture of lifelong learning in the university was seen as the key challenge. The Government were very enthusiastic but the sector would need to find ways of engaging as it developed its green paper into a framework for action. Tessa Blackstone told the conference that universities should develop partnerships, have coherent strategies for access and develop plans for more adult lifelong learning. Credit accumulation should be used to help students move between institutions.
At this stage the University for Industry was a key part of the government’s plans, with learning accounts enabling students to access short courses. There was even mention of graduate apprenticeships. Corporate learning would be important, and Geraldine Kenney-Wallace, the ‘vice-chancellor’ of the ‘BAE University’, provided information on their virtual university – part of their business strategy to enhance their international competitiveness, covering qualifications from HNDs to PhDs.
If some have measured out their lives with coffee spoons, the life of an academic registrar is measured out by working parties. In addition to the committees and standing groups, I appear to have attended specific groups on regulations, IT systems, graduation, continuing education, and tuition fees (we were still billing LEAs – but planning was underway for the new £1000 fees).
One set of working parties was concentrating on the future of the college, preparing a plan to deal with those strategic challenges, particularly focused on the prospect of applying for degree awarding powers.
Despite lots of efforts (including Bob Fryer who later headed it) Southampton’s New College never took off and the old LSU site was sold for housing. BAE never developed their corporate university. King Alfred’s got it’s degree awarding powers and is now the University of Winchester.