“Government may give startup universities degree-awarding powers”. This was the headline that stood out amongst the Brexit blur on 16th May 2016 and transformed LIS from a pipe dream to reality.
The process has been long and rigorous. More than four years later, and I’m incredibly proud to say that LIS is the first provider since Warwick University in 1965 to open its doors with the ability to award its own degrees. That was over 50 years ago!
The start of a long road
The higher education system has made it hard for exciting new entrants, with innovative degrees to enter the space. Historically, new entrants had to be validated by an existing institution for several years first. What’s more, traditional degrees don’t start with a real-world problem. So how could an existing university, providing traditional courses, validate this completely new kind of degree?
We knew this route wouldn’t work for us if we wanted to truly innovate.
Ever since starting School 21 I have felt strongly that the next generation needs to be better prepared to tackle the complex issues it faces. These problems, like climate change and poverty, do not respect disciplinary boundaries so why should your degree? What if students were not limited by their ‘subject’ but could learn the key concepts from any discipline they needed to tackle the problems?
It was clear, we had to get our own Degree Awarding Powers.
And now it might actually be possible.
The question was – how did we get them?
A high bar
As we started to develop a first draft of the degree, we also kept an eye on the progress of the bill. On 27th April 2017 it was finally made law, in the Higher Education and Research Act. Game on!
Within a month we met with the newly appointed Office for Students chair, Sir Michael Barber, who said that any new entrants must provide high quality as well as innovation.
The minister was also determined to set the bar high for entry “into the system” and to protect the UK’s international “badge of honour”.
From concept to reality
We started to build LIS to prove to the regulators that our ambitions were serious.
We needed a world class faculty, expert in a range of subjects and ones willing to collaborate on course design. We wanted a new kind of relationship with employers, from all sectors. The leading organisations of the next 20 years will be the ones who successfully navigate the challenges we face; the ‘manufactured risks’ that, frankly, my generation have made worse. And no-one at LIS believes that A-levels are a sufficient measure of a student’s ability. We knew we therefore needed to develop a totally new approach to admissions. Our approach will be fairer, more holistic, personal and better at spotting true potential.
We tested all the above with employers who loved the idea, with leading academics, and most importantly with sixth formers who were planning their next steps.
In the subsequent three and half years, we have recruited a brilliant faculty, demonstrated huge student demand for our new offer, raised funding, developed a network of leading employers and designed an innovative curriculum.
Reflecting on the journey
One year from opening and we are incredibly proud to be the first institution in over 50 years to open our doors with our own degree awarding powers. This is a historic achievement and the team and degree we have now exceeds anything we could have imagined before 2016.
It hasn’t been easy. We are building a university. From scratch. It’s taken several years of hard work and patience to get us here. And we owe a huge thanks to everyone who’s watched LIS grow from a simple frustration with the current education system, into a whole new approach to teaching and learning. Lots of you have been with us since the beginning and you’ve stuck by us throughout the journey to this point.
We truly believe that a modern interdisciplinary education is what’s needed to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. Problems which we’re all living through right now – climate change, social inequality, and a global pandemic.
And just like these real-world problems don’t ‘fit’ into disciplinary boxes, why should your degree?