‘THE EXPERTS got it wrong’.
This is the clear and undeniable view at the University of Chichester, as it proudly unveils new research degree-awarding powers (RDAP).
This week, the university’s vice-chancellor, Clive Behagg, spoke to the Observer of his delight at the university achieving RDAP status, as well as his joy at proving all the doubters wrong.
This is all a far cry from four years ago, when a study commissioned by lecturers’ union UCU labelled the university ‘at risk’ as tuition fees were set to rise and government funding was set to be cut.
A study predicted smaller universities would struggle to attract students and therefore potentially run out of funding.
“The argument was that this was last orders for smaller universities and at the time we were the smallest university in the country,” said Prof Behagg. “We took that personally.”
At the time he criticised the report and since then the university’s work at both its Chichester and Bognor Regis campuses has actively dispelled any predicted doomsday scenarios.
“I was never intimidated by all that talk about our imminent demise,” he said. “We knew what other people didn’t know, which was other people came to us because they’re looking for a particular experience.”
The ‘particular experience’ he talks of is shown in the high levels of student satisfaction recorded, something the vice-chancellor is keen to emphasise.
“What we offer here is high-quality education in a community. The reason we do well in national student satisfaction is the sense of belonging students have when they come here.”
He added: “We look at community engagement as far as we possibly can. We try to get our students out in their internships and work placements so that they get a taste of the real world alongside their studies.
“Most of the courses we teach are towards developing employability skills.”
When the UCU report was published, it predicted the only degrees that would flourish would be those that led very clearly into a job.
“They were wrong again,” said Prof Behagg. “The reason they were wrong is the same reason experts were wrong about the vulnerability of certain institutions. It leaves out the students and what students want to do.”
He said some of the courses at the university that grew most extensively in the wake of the fee rise were the creative arts and the university now has the second-largest music department in the country.
“People are following their dream,” he said. “The experts had kind of missed that and assumed everybody would act as if they were being driven by the market. Employment is very important and we never forget that, but we never mistake the difference between employability and vocational education.”
He went on to say: “The graduates we produce are well-qualified and ready to adapt to the circumstances they find themselves in.”
The new RDAP status for the university aims to expand this mission and use its research powers to benefit the local economy.
A £10m Institute of Sustainability is now proposed for the Bognor Regis campus, in conjunction with a strategic economic plan drawn up by enterprise partnership Coast to Capital.
All of this means the university is ever on its toes, always looking ahead to the next challenge.
“Where the experts were right was that small universities have less critical mass to draw on if things go wrong,” said Prof Behagg.
“What that means is we have to keep up with the game. We have to be on our game all the time and we can’t afford to be off our game. Every staff member is on message about recruiting students.”
Rather than ‘disappearing off the face of the earth’, according to the vice-chancellor, the university has in fact grown in size by seven per cent in the past four years and is no longer the smallest university in the country.
He also highlighted the benefits the university brings to the area.
With student fees currently at £8,500 per year and set to rise to £9,000, the university has an income of around £49m per year, 85 per cent of which he said came from the tuition fees. The remainder is from research grants and renting out of university facilities.
“Whenever we think about what we’re spending our money on, we think is it right to spend students’ money on this?
“The shift to the new funding arrangements has had an impact. It’s made a lot of universities more student-focused. For us, being student-focused remained the key to our future anyway.”
However, Prof Behagg said a recent economic impact statement showed the university contributed around £109m per year to the local economy, through spending from students and more.
For now, it is a time of celebration at the University of Chichester, but that is not to say the university is taking its eye off the ball. While it looks back at how far it has come, it continues to be ambitious about looking forward and what the RDAP can help it achieve for the area in the future.
THE UNIVERSITY of Chichester has awarded PhDs since 1992, however in this time they have all been accredited by the University of Southampton.
“They’ve been a great supporter to us getting to independent status. One could talk about that almost as an apprenticeship,” said Chichester vice-chancellor Clive Behagg, adding the university had reached a point where it could now do it independently.
He said the moment he found out the university’s RDAP application had been approved by the Privy Council, on behalf of the Queen, was a ‘significant point on a long journey’.
“It felt wonderful, absolutely wonderful,”
“It was a delight. I hadn’t had any doubt that we would be able to gain it, but I knew that most universities that had gone through the process had setbacks on the way and we hadn’t.
“Ours went through at the first time of asking. It had been a long scrutiny process and I felt that was absolutely wonderful. It felt like coming to the end of one long journey and starting up another one – of course it’s not the end of the story.”
He said while the university did place a
great emphasis on research, it never forgot the fundamental importance of teaching.
“In some universities, an academic will be employed and they will see their main project in the university as research. For us, we’re a teaching organisation that does research, as opposed to a research organisation that does teaching.
“All our teachers are researchers and all our researchers are teachers.”
He went on: “We’ve worked so hard to create a university for Chichester and it’s something that wasn’t here before, and it’s now a huge asset to the area and the impact it will have on the area will increase over the years.”
IT IS now nearly 40 years since Clive Behagg arrived in Chichester on a one-year contract in 1976, having grown up in north London and completed a degree and PhD at the University of Birmingham.
Now, he can look back on a journey that has seen the university flourish and expand beyond all recognition.
In 1977, the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education – as the university was then known – was formed out of a merger between Bishop Otter College, in Chichester, and the Bognor Regis College of Education.
He became principal in 1998, acting vice-chancellor in 2010 and was appointed permanently in 2011.
“It’s been a significant journey for me, but over the past four or five years we’ve developed the estate to a position where it’s never been in such an advanced state, in terms of our facilities. There are great facilities on both campuses and the university has been successful,” he said.
He said it was never his intention to be vice-chancellor, but that is how it has panned out. He described it as a ‘wonderful and amazing’ job.
Aged 64, he confirmed he had no plans to retire and said he would like to continue the job ‘forever’.