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Norwich university predicts bright future

Norwich University College for the Arts.

Norwich University College for the Arts.

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Universities are supposed to be bastions of tradition: standing strong and unmoved as the political and social winds change.

The winds are particularly fierce at the moment, though, and they are blowing through the offices and lecture halls and ruffling more than just the hair of academics.

In short, they are the winds of change – radical, almost revolutionary change.

The government is withdrawing virtually all of the teaching funding it gives to universities and replacing it with the money raised through higher annual tuition fees of up to £9,000 from September 2012.

The new system has sown a seed of doubt among vice-chancellors and principals, amid fears that the much larger fees will put many young people off higher education – even though the debts are only paid back gradually, once the graduate is earning at least £21,000.

There are also ongoing worries about the criteria that will be set to determine how much more than £6,000 each institution will be able to charge. Universities know that it will depend on what they do to encourage wider access, but the detail is lacking.

It would be easy to assume that small, specialist places like Norwich University College of the Arts on St Georges Street are most vulnerable to the changes.

But Nuca principal Prof John Last is confident that the opposite could be the case, with Nuca able to emerge stronger from the period of upheaval.

That is despite the current period of frustration.

Nuca currently has 1,600 undergraduates. The figure could be considerably higher, with the university reporting 2,009 applications for 575 2011 places by the first deadline of January 15 – up 22pc on this stage last year.

Unfortunately, like all other institutions, Nuca has had its students numbers capped by the government, leaving it to turn down hundreds of able young people.

Prof Last said Nuca’s provision of specialist courses, with clear paths to careers, would enable it to offer what students were looking for as the higher education market became more competitive.

He said: “It’s got a very strong financial base, very strong demand and it’s an institution that’s planning for the next 25 years.

“I think it’s got a very strong place because specialism and integrated courses for the creative industries will always be important for the country.

“Nuca is an important asset for the city and for the region. There are a number of changes going on, but it’s our responsibility to manage it.”

Prof Last acknowledged that Nuca was in the midst of a “period of tremendous change”, but said: “Our aspiration is to make those changes imperceptible to students.

“Prudent institutions have been preparing for this for some while. They will have been looking at their expenditure and the courses they offer and making sure there’s a tight rein on expenditure and a concentration on core business.

“At the same time, you have to be clear about the courses you are offering. We’ve introduced new courses and merged some courses to ensure that they are the right ones for people to study.”

He added that “vocational” was “not a dirty word”, and said: “What we do is in service to the creative industries, which remain very important to this region.”

The biggest imponderable at the moment, which is having an impact on financial planning, is how much each institution will be allowed to charge.

Prof Last said it was “unlikely” that specialist institutions like Nuca would have different fees for courses, and said; “We are awaiting guidance from the government on how we can set fees. The Office for Fair Access has said it will get a letter out in February.

“It’s disappointing that we don’t know. I think we will see fees differing across some institutions. It’s less likely that we will see that fee differential in specialist institutions.”

He added: “I think institutions will have to choose whether they do every subject. For us as a specialist institution it’s a relatively simple choice.

“What students should get is the best quality specialist education we can give them. Making sure subjects are appropriate for students is going to be increasingly important.

“We are working very closely with lots of local companies in the media in terms of apps for phones and websites that can be downloaded onto phones.”

He also said that he hoped the real value of higher education would not be lost in the changes.

“There’s a value to higher education for society. It cannot just be reduced to income and education. It’s about the individual becoming a more important part of society.”

What do you think? Write to Evening News Letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE or email eveningnewsletters@archant.co.uk or follow 
@stevedownes1973 on Twitter.

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