On 27 September the University provided staff with another update on progress with its UA92 project. Senior managers were present to give us a most positive spin on the work which has taken place over the last year; including Simon Guy, FASS Dean and Interim Principal for 2017-18, and Craig Gaskell, the new Principal and CEO of UA92. Judging by the number of empty chairs in the Great Hall, attendance was clearly down on what was expected. Most of the allocated hour was taken up with promotional videos (x 2) and Simon and Craig giving us their take on things. ‘Exciting things’ are happening. UA92 will be ‘unlocking greatness’ through its ‘pioneer portfolio’. A UA92 degree is ‘more than just a degree’ – it is ‘game-changing’. Although it’s been a ‘tough, tough journey’ to date, with ‘bumps along the way’ and this year ‘we’ve got to bake this into a proper cake’ (big Bake Off fans, apparently), UA92 will be ‘making a massive difference to lives’ with the ‘amazing opportunities’ which will be on offer. Wow!
Except that when it came to explaining what a UA92 degree is about, it turns out it’s not that different from anything else on offer in HE apart from the Target Talent Curriculum, which runs through the programme (think ‘stick of rock’). Twenty credits per year are devoted to the TTC which is essentially about ‘character development’, for example resilience (how does that get assessed?). Anyway, the UA92 degree will be delivered in modular blocks (innovative!), with flexible start and finish dates (innovative!), admission to lower level awards, i.e. CertHE and DipHE (innovative!) and even possibly enabling a degree to be taken over two years (innovative!).
Not a few of us at the University have been asking for some time why Lancaster has bothered to join up with the likes of Gary Neville and private business in such a venture. Whilst proclaiming all the time that this venture was about a commitment to social mobility (called into question immediately by the huge efforts to obtain a Tier 4 licence in order to be able to recruit international students from the get-go), this presentation gave a clear answer, even though the question wasn’t asked. It’s about getting a physical toehold in Manchester, a springboard from which to tap into the business opportunities provided by the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and grow student numbers (650 in 2019, forecast to increase to a total roll of 6,500 in 2028). Make no mistake about it, this is first and foremost about growth in student numbers, not just in the UK but globally.
Despite Lancaster’s top-ten position in the league tables, it seems its size and geographical location are seen as constraints. So, with the venture having been awarded government funding of £3m, Lancaster has been moving ahead fast over the last year, with admission of the first cohort due in September 2019. And yet…
– Programmes have been approved, but no modules have yet been written (how does that work in the world of the Competition and Markets Authority where applicants to universities are supposed to have clear information about course content?)
– No teachers have yet been recruited.
– The project is camping out at facilities provided at the Lancashire County Cricket ground.
– The old Kellogg building which has been purchased as the initial facility for this venture needs refurbishment – yet to get started let alone finished.
Cripes! Better get a move-on then. If the Resigned to the Spine project, the Health Innovation Building Site and the LUMS Space Gazing projects are anything to go by, the signs are not good. But perhaps contractors work faster in the big city.
Oh, one last thing. In case subtext readers don’t yet know the business partners involved in UA92, these are Microsoft and KPMG. KPMG? Yes, that’s right – the audit firm which was recently slammed (along with three other auditors) in the report of the Carillion Inquiry carried out by the government’s Work and Pensions Committee and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee, with the chair of the BEIS Committee asserting that the auditors should be ‘in the dock’ for the ‘catastrophic’ Carillion collapse. While KPMG took a £29m pay packet as Carillion’s auditor for 19 years, the inquiry said that it ‘complacently’ signed off ‘fantastical figures’ and that ‘in failing to exercise professional scepticism towards Carillion’s accounting judgements over the course of its tenure as Carillion’s auditor, KPMG was complicit in them’. So a fit partner for the University? We will leave readers to judge. Thank goodness that the financial viability of UA92 itself was assessed by another big financial firm, PwC, which is of course much more competent than KPMG (except perhaps when it comes to organising academy awards ceremonies, or not advising clients to invest billions into offshore tax havens, as detailed in the Panama Papers and subtext 159).