Last month I highlighted the diversity of higher education institutions as one of the key features of the UK higher education sector and its outstanding global reputation. After a couple of weeks in the job this strikes me as an ever more important characteristic that we must not lose, either by choice or accident. I wanted to expand on this point about diversity by emphasising the importance that specialist institutions play within the higher education landscape.

Specialism is high on the political agenda at the moment. The HEFCE funding letter earlier in the year highlighted the importance of protecting “small and specialist” institutions and was followed more recently by Vince Cable outlining his vision for a “new generation of National Colleges: specialised institutions, acting as national centres of expertise, in key areas of the economy. They will be employer-focused, and combine academic knowledge with practical application.”

Links with employers and employability

It is this interface, and symbiotic relationship, between education and their related industries that has been a key feature in my first few weeks as I have visited specialist institutions as diverse as the Arts University Bournemouth and the British School of Osteopathy. This point was particularly drawn out at the Landex Conference, which brings together land based colleges, as colleagues from universities and colleges were describing their links with the agricultural industry.

In amongst all the commentary about the recent CentreForum report Higher education as a tool of social mobility the one point that seemed to get a bit lost in the media coverage was how well many specialist institutions do both in equipping graduates with the skills necessary for the labour market. Specialist institutions support graduates to make a rapid transition into the workforce but, as the report showed, this was particularly true in terms of those from the lowest POLAR quintiles and therefore aiding social mobility.

It’s not just in terms of employability that this link with business bears fruit and highlights the importance of specialist institutions. Key to economic growth is both research and knowledge transfer. Again it is here that many specialist institutions stand as exemplars with the Royal Veterinary College, Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Agricultural University just a couple that spring to mind.

Small-group teaching

But for many students it’s not just for their future employability that they choose specialist institutions. When I think back to my brother’s experience at the Royal Academy of Music, for him as for many other students, choosing to study at a specialist institution was about being taught in very small classes by excellent teachers and expert practitioners.

This small-group teaching, and therefore the closer relationships with academics, can result in the development of a real feeling of academic community – as well as a valuable network of contacts in the industry. This community experience and excellence in smaller universities is valued by both staff and students and is often borne out by high National Student Survey results.

Specialist institutions can also ensure real specialism. I studied history and in many institutions, for example, someone teaching Japanese history might have to teach many other non-European history modules. Whereas at a specialist institution like SOAS they would be part of a team of Japanese history specialists. This ability to provide breadth across the discipline is highly valued by students.

In a conversation recently someone made the point that you can’t be a mediocre specialist institution – you just wouldn’t survive – so to be specialist suggests something quite special.

Making the case for specialist institutions

As we speed towards the next election – and the likely challenging spending round immediately afterwards – it will be important to highlight the key role that specialist institutions play in driving economic growth, delivering highly skilled graduates and contributing to the cultural fabric of our society.

We are in the lucky scenario of a broadly positive political canvass for specialist institutions, but whilst the fair wind is behind us we need to take advantage of this and make real progress in demonstrating the importance of specialist institutions.

There are additional costs associated with being a specialist institution such as the smaller class sizes and specialist nature of equipment and teaching spaces that can’t be cross-subsidised by other disciplines as would happen in larger multi-faculty institutions.

HEFCE currently recognises these costs through the Institution Specific Targeted Allocation this will be reviewed in 2016. Even if we are able to maintain the funding without significant cuts – a big “if” – there are still significant numbers of specialist institutions that can’t access this funding. In addition the size of many specialist institutions can often mean that they miss out on being able to access capital or research funding streams if there are minimum bid/income thresholds for bids.

We will be drawing together the evidence and making the case to key opinion formers and would welcome working with a range of specialist institutions to help make the strongest possible case.