27th April 2023Small and specialist universities are vital to competition and innovation in higher education

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published the first holistic picture of small and special-focus universities in Size is Everything: What small, specialist and practice-based providers tell us about the higher education sector (HEPI Report 160). This makes the case for major policy, structural and regulatory changes to increase competition, innovation and sector diversity in higher education.

Small and special-focus universities now represent 40% of providers in England and 15% in Scotland, and are the key providers of practice-based education in Britain. Specialism is essential to institutional responsiveness for vital sectors, such as medicine, agriculture and the creative industries. But special-focus institutions face resource scarcity, a hostile operating environment with diseconomies of scale and barriers to stability and growth.

Report findings include:

  • Small and special-focus providers need help to overcome diseconomies of scale, capital investment and research requirements.
  • Policymakers need a firmer grasp of size and specialism, as the sector broadens with new market entrants and access to degree awarding powers.
  • Specific aspects of higher education should be de-regulated to address barriers to entry and growth for small providers and overlooked disciplines.
  • Mergers are a major risk to identity and specialism. Small provider clusters need structural support for lower risk alliances, including shared services, managed networks, consortia, strategic alliances and joint ventures.

Edward Venning, author of the report and Partner at Six Ravens Consulting LLP, said:

Britain’s small and special-focus universities are the magic ingredient in UK higher education. This is the scale at which almost every great institution got its start. These universities are a mainstay of global expertise in key fields. But today, they face major barriers to growth and expertise, mocking claims to sector diversity and dynamism.

Professor Simon Ofield-Kerr, Vice-Chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts, who supported the publication, said:

It is time to change the rules of the game. Special-focus institutions must be valued for the focused ecologies we create and the different pedagogies underpinning our practice, rather than a predetermined collection of subjects.

We need to build common cause with institutions that may look very different but share core interests in new technologies, economies and global challenges. An enquiry-based, experimental, and industry-engaged approach is the one of the most effective ways to understand, represent and produce the world in which we live.

Sandra Booth, Director of Policy & External Relations at Council for Higher Education Art & Design, said:

This excellent report highlights the distinctive nature, value and agency of practice-based education in ‘small and specialist’ institutions while advocating for better understanding of the distinctiveness of practice-based pedagogies, resource-intensive provision and opportunities for enhanced research impact. The analysis can be equally applied to specialist provision within large and multi-functional providers, particularly in studio based Creative Arts and Design higher education, where, despite differences in scale across the sector, there are many shared aims, challenges, and discipline-specific missions.

My hope is that the recommendations within the report enable the collaborative efforts of those with a ‘quieter voice’ in the sector to be ‘understood on their own terms’ as potential policy makers rather than policy takers.

Carol Rudge, Partner at HW Fisher, who sponsored the report, said:

This report showcases the character, collective challenges and opportunities of specialism and small size in the sector. Anchored in a culture which places great emphasis on the nurture of the individual, they have tremendous innovation potential, balanced by the challenge of delivery in similar ways to large institutions with greater resources at their fingertips.

Access the full report here

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