Status is a pretty big deal in the world of higher education.
It's not unrelated to the uni's age, (so head over to our post on the old vs. the new to catch up) because within a few months in 1992, there were suddenly nearly 40 new universities all over the country.
They didn’t just materialise like an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Previously they were ‘polytechnics’.
What now? The name actually makes some sense: it originates from the Greek polu- (many) and tekhnē (art). So it's the place of many arts. There you go, something to store for future pub quizzes.
The idea of polytechnics dates back to the early sixties and, in theory, they were just as good as universities only with different aims — to teach less traditional students, to prepare them more specifically for jobs and to teach more than just degrees.
In practice, however, not even the polytechnics thought they were as good (partly because they’d always get the short straw as far as funding was concerned) and they all wanted to become universities.
So, in 1992, the so-called ‘binary divide’ between universities and polys was abolished and all the old polys changed their names. Now there’s not a single poly left, although Anglia Polytechnic University, (now Anglia Ruskin University) hung on to the word as part of its name for years, wearing it like a battle scar.
The polys were, as a rule, newer than the universities, and so all the advantages and disadvantages of age apply. However, most of them also had a bum reputation compared to the universities, even though the education was often just as good and employment rates were in fact often higher.
Yes, there’s still some stigma attached to former polys in some people’s eyes. The good news is that most of them don’t know them by their new names so wouldn’t be able to tell.
Since 1992, higher education has kept on ballooning, and the former polys and old universities just weren’t big enough. Many of them have grown faster than mould on bread, but more institutions were still needed.
As a result, even though the official binary divide had been abolished, a new one emerged: the universities and the CHEs (or Colleges of Higher Education). There are several hundred CHEs — many of them pretty small and specialist, but a number have been given permission to leap the abyss and call themselves ‘universities’. Others can leap halfway and hang suspended, calling themselves ‘university colleges’.
Some examples of this are:
It would have even been possible for someone to have signed up for a degree at Ealing College in 1990 and graduated three years later from Thames Valley University, having attended West London Poly in between – now it's the University of West London. Crazy, but it's all the same place.
In all the confusion, there have been a few entirely new institutions founded along the way. The University of Lincoln, for instance, didn’t exist until fairly recently, and in 2007 a number of colleges in Scotland opened their doors as the new University of the Highlands & Islands.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these new institutions, despite what you will almost certainly hear. Some are great, some aren’t so great and some have good bits.
The only way to tell is the same as you would with any university: judge it on its own merits — academic, atmosphere, facilities and so on — and decide whether it offers the right package for you.
So don't rule out all new unis in pursuit of the Russell group and red bricks. You'll never know unless you give them a go.
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