Faced with UA92, the new higher education venture fronted by ex-manchester united players , one must confess to a certain confusion. One’s immediate reaction was, frankly, hilarity. This was then tempered by a realisation that this project was a rare example of sportsmen putting their (considerable) money where their (also considerable) mouths were. Then one realised that the project is, however well-intentioned, primarily a money-making venture, and one starts to feel uneasy.
Anyway, cleaving close to the subtext mission statement to carp and criticise, it is perfectly possible to think that this project is a jolly commendable idea in many ways while also thinking that it is not necessarily something that Lancaster University (yes, that’s uppercase) should necessarily be hitching its wagon to. Of course, we don’t know the fine details of the deal, but we’re sure larger and better-informed minds than ours have no doubt thought long and hard about how it will work, and what our commitment and investment should be. However, a number of questions persist, most of them under the umbrella of ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ University teaching is described in the publicity as the third leg of a triad, along with sport and business. Even allowing for the VC’s recent comments on building links with business, this goes beyond links and into partnership. That’s a sea-change. Maybe a good one, but it’ll be difficult to distance ourselves if this all goes wrong, and it might. UA92, it seems, aims to fill a gap somewhere between HE and FE, mixed up with a kind of Matthew Arnold-esque emphasis on mens sana in corpore sano, building character and quadriceps with equal enthusiasm, maximising self-reliance and oxygen uptake in the same programme. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, our name is all over it.
Which is odd, because you can go through the UA92 website for a long time without discovering what Lancaster University will actually do for these lucky students. You will discover that ‘Universities have traditionally placed academic learning at the core of the curriculum, supported by character development for the world of work’. By comparison, UA92 will deliver ‘a curriculum with employability and character development at the core wrapped around by academic development.’ Um, ok, well, that doesn’t sound so much like a vision, more a change of emphasis at most. And are we happy to be the afterthought in this arrangement?
We learn further that the ‘Target Talent Curriculum’ (harrumph) seeks ‘to put personal development at the core of the learning experience’, and that it will focus on providing students with ten attributes: academic learning, life skills, work experience, how to survive in demanding workplace situations, leadership skills, peer group analysis, participative learning, fitness, and presentation and financial skills. Leaving aside the Blair-esque meaninglessness of a phrase like ‘Target Talent Curriculum’, we note that of the ten desirable attributes, academic learning is just one. Not their priority, then. Is this to be like the Associate College scheme, where students come here for a top-up degree in their third year? If so, will these students, however bursting with peer-group analysis skills they may be, find the academic playing field to be level? Or will the field be re-marked to fit them, in which case how will their degrees compare to those students who have been here for three years, pale of skin and character, and short on resilience and the ability to survive in demanding workplace situations, but nevertheless well-trained in passing exams?
But harken we to the words of the VC. ‘This is a good time to test the appetite for a venture of this nature for two reasons. Firstly, the government wishes to open up the Higher Education marketplace to new and innovative ways of delivery. Secondly, businesses are becoming increasingly interested in how Higher Education can prepare students for working life. This project is designed to address both of those ideas head on.’ So that’s all right then.