Leading arts college embarks on plan to double student numbers, largely via online teaching, to bolster its ‘social purpose’ and financial health despite England’s funding freeze, led by the architect of Tony Blair’s 50% higher education participation target.
James Purnell, a former Labor minister and the BBC’s director of strategy and digital, became vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London – made up of six colleges, including Central Saint Martins – in March 2021.
Now, UAL has released a 2022-2032 strategy, titled The world needs creativitywhich includes a policy to bring “high quality creative education to more students than ever before”, increasing the number of students taking courses in London by 5,000, with “online and low-residential courses offering an additional 15,000 spaces.
“If you look at the charts of who’s the most enforced and who’s the most exclusive, we’re in those charts,” Purnell said. Times Higher Education. “We don’t want to be defined as exclusive; we want to be defined as inclusive. Growth is therefore a means of providing both this access and responding to a wider [student] demand.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic has brought “real experience about what digital learning is” and a realization that “there is no reason to limit our number of students based on the size of our buildings; we can actually offer online as an alternative”.
Does this expansion concern the financial viability of UAL?
“I think there are other models that we would be sustainable on,” Purnell said. “The fundamental point of the strategy is that we try to design the university around what we are here for, around our social objective. And by being able to grow, we can generate a surplus that we can then invest in our climate work, or anti-racism work, or in research, or in supporting our staff.
Another element of UAL’s strategy is to “change the world through our creative endeavour”, building on existing work such as its Center for Sustainable Fashion, the Institute of Decolonization Arts and the Refugee Journalism Project.
Recent news of a further two-year freeze in the tuition fee cap at £9,250 – a freeze of at least seven years in total – will mean UAL will need to make efficiency savings, said Mr Purnell. “But the best way to answer it [the fees freeze] has reasonable growth, allowing you to have a surplus, which means you can reinvest and avoid having to make inappropriate cuts,” he added.
Some may be skeptical about delivering arts courses online. But, during the pandemic, Mr. Purnell said, “some of our courses that you think would be the hardest to take online, have been doing brilliantly online. Ceramic – it’s hard to think of anything more tactile than this.
Mr Purnell argued that UAL could “do quality at scale”, citing Arizona State University as an example of doing so.
He added: “We are going to find out how you experience the online student experience… Academic support, libraries, social and educational communities – all of these things that we will have to do in a way that is appropriate for these courses. And it’s exciting.
In 1999, Mr Purnell’s work in Policy Unit Number 10 included an article for then Labor Prime Minister Mr Blair, co-authored with London School of Economics economist David Soskice, which recommended an increase in the rate of participation in higher education in England. The goal was “to at least get to where the South Koreas, the Americas, the Scandinavians were,” Purnell recalled.
It became Mr Blair’s pledge for 50% of young people to enter tertiary education – still seen as a totemic fallacy by conservative critics of the expansion.
“The virtue of 50% [target] if it overcame what tended to happen, which was you had a period of expansion, then the Treasury would worry about the cost and cap it,’ Mr Purnell said.
He described the current Conservative government’s plan for lifelong loan entitlement as “a 100 per cent [participation] target indeed, for everyone” in post-18 education as a whole.
“The beauty of politics, if kept pure, is that it’s not the politicians who decide whether it’s 50% or 75% [participation]it will be decided by individuals who will determine where they will spend their £37,000 over their lifetime,” he said.
The expansion combined with tuition has given students the “grassroots decision-making power” in the system, bringing greater supply in areas such as fashion that have proven critical to the economy, Mr. Purnell.
He continued: “In the future, we should have a learner-led system – collectively this will achieve the best results.
“This means the sector will need to be supported to grow and be flexible. That’s why we think online expansion and use will be a key part of the mix.