Principal Thoughts: A vocational online university bucking the trend and widening participation

Posted on: 7 August, 2020

Welcome to the latest edition of Ashley Wheaton’s ‘Principal Thoughts’. This month, Ashley writes about the challenges created by UCEM’s unique identity and offers an insight into the work which has gone into serving the Built Environment with accessible, relevant and cost-effective online learning before and after the outbreak of COVID-19.


Into which category would you place UCEM?

Mainstream university? Vocational college? Online learning provider?

The truth is UCEM straddles all three without being firmly positioned in one above the others.

As the leading provider of supported online education for the Built Environment, the unique nature of UCEM is its strength yet, in terms of reputation, this poses problems.

UCEM’s absolute focus on providing education for the Built Environment sector is niche yet students study with us from all across the globe with nearly 100 countries represented.

As a university with taught degree awarding powers, we have to demonstrate precisely the same quality standards and exacting conditions of registration as all other mainstream universities, and yet parity is rarely assumed by those outside of UCEM.

This can sometimes mean we are not credited for the huge amount of work which has been put in to secure our educational status. For example, until this year UCEM was not included in the Times Higher Education’s (THE) National Student Survey (NSS) rankings.

Vocational colleges tend to be hands-on which UCEM, as an online learning institution, demonstrably is not. Wholly online institutions tend not to deliver full degree programmes yet UCEM does.

Whilst the students and employers we serve recognise UCEM’s strengths in serving the sector, those encountering the institution for the first time may be deterred by misconceptions shaped by media narratives about universities, vocational colleges and online learning in general.

Online learning in the press

The past few months, in particular, with the onset of COVID-19 forcing many universities to adapt and deliver teaching resources online, has seen a torrent of criticism levelled at online learning.

Institutions in this position have my utmost sympathy in having to adapt so suddenly during what has been an incredibly testing time for the everyone across the world. Producing high-quality online learning resources doesn’t happen overnight so it’s understandable that early efforts might fall short of students’ expectations.

UCEM’s supported online education

What would be wrong, however, would be to associate UCEM with the criticisms shared about online learning as a substitute for face-to-face teaching. Our degree programmes are not for those who crave a campus experience. They are designed for online from the ground up. We can never replicate that and students seeking a face-to-face university experience would be better served by institutions which offer this.

What we do offer is the opportunity to study our vocational programmes at a pace which suits you so you can earn while you learn. Our virtual learning environment (VLE) has been honed over many years (a huge transformation for the institution summarised neatly in this article) and you’d be hard pressed to show me an online learning provider with better support, both in terms of resource and functions, for students on an individual basis.

Conversely, it’s our online learning offer which has made us so resilient during these unprecedented times. We have continued to serve our students and employer partners with no adverse effects on the student experience.

New programme launches

Not only that but, through discussions with employers and research carried out, we have launched a series of new programme offers designed to serve the changing needs of the market.

The first of these was the Year 13 BSc Access Module – a bespoke learning opportunity for school leavers to experience online university study at a heavily reduced price of £195 (down from the usual £1,525 for the BSc Access Module representing an 87% discount).

Traditionally, and another differentiator to mainstream universities, our students are not school leavers, but we felt this programme could benefit those in Year 13 seeking to gain a head start in their undergraduate studies with an avenue onto our BSc (Hons) programmes should they wish. Launched when schools had closed due to the pandemic, with A Levels cancelled, we felt our online learning could benefit those with an interest in the Built Environment.

With millions of workers in the UK furloughed, it made sense to offer a full-time study option to enable those with the time and the means to progress their studies at a faster rate. We therefore launched four full-time BSc (Hons) programme routes to support students in this way. Our flexible study options mean someone beginning on a full-time programme can change to part-time should their circumstances change.

Postgraduate Access Programme graphic

We brought parity at postgraduate level with the introduction of our Postgraduate Access Programme enabling students without the requisite entry requirements to enrol onto our postgraduate programmes to demonstrate their capability to study at that level. The Postgraduate Access Programme is the postgraduate equivalent to our existing BSc Access Module.

At the more flexible end of the learning spectrum, we launched the Certificate of Higher Education Built Environment Studies and our Undergraduate Single Module Study programme. The Certificate of Higher Education Built Environment Studies enables students to undertake all our Level 4 BSc (Hons) modules before choosing whether to continue onto one of our BSc (Hons) programmes or use the qualification as a foundation for studying elsewhere. If prospective undergraduate students are unsure whether online learning is for them or even don’t know which discipline within the Built Environment they wish to pursue, this programme is suitable. Our Undergraduate Single Module Study programme is for those not wishing to study at degree level but want a shorter study option to increase their knowledge base and boost their CPD.

With regards our apprenticeship offer, we launched a new programme and a new pathway – our Construction Site Management Degree Apprenticeship and our Chartered Surveyor Apprenticeship MSc route, respectively. These apprenticeships were in the pipeline pre-COVID but our organisational resilience and belief in these apprenticeships benefiting the sector in the long-term meant we went ahead despite the challenges of recent months. Understandably, fewer employers are in a position to hire apprentices but we remain committed to the apprenticeship agenda and will continue to support businesses wishing to take advantage of our programmes.

A tremendous amount of work has gone into launching these additional programmes and is testament to my fantastic colleagues who have adapted brilliantly to working at home and continuing to provide an excellent service to our students and employers. Our Director of Commercial and Business Development, Stephen Bartle, has played a huge part in shaping our academic offer since the pandemic, and he summarised the thought processes behind the launches in a recent Estates Gazette podcast.

Widening participation

As the scrutiny of the reactive attempts by other institutions to go online continues, UCEM is focused on the pressing issue of continuing to act to widen participation in the Built Environment. Going back to potential reputational damage from being included in the categories we are defined by, seeing the recent headline of ‘Lockdown hits vocational education hardest, widening inequalities’ on THE’s website demanded closer attention.

Unless you have an account with THE, you won’t be able to read the article but the gist is that the majority of vocational institutions require face-to-face, practical demonstrations which doesn’t translate easily online and that vocational training tends to serve those from lower-income households; with vocational institutions suffering, students will too which will widen inequalities. On the former point, our degree programmes serve to increase the knowledge base of professionals to implement in their working lives; on the latter point, we are steadfast in our efforts to widen participation.

In a previous Principal Thoughts blog I wrote a couple of months ago, I outlined the efforts we have made at UCEM to encourage people from non-traditional backgrounds to consider a career in the Built Environment. Ultimately, UCEM’s core purpose has always been ‘to provide accessible, relevant and cost-effective education’ to contribute towards a better Built Environment with ‘accessible’ and ‘cost-effective’ ensuring a sustained focus on helping those with lesser means to be successful.

So, whilst the world has changed considerably, UCEM will continue to seek avenues to study for those from lower-income households. Since detailing our efforts to widen participation a couple of months ago, there has been the launch of the #BEReady bursary, which, with the support of the Chartered Surveyors Training Trust (CSTT), will see students have the opportunity to study on our BSc Access Module for half the price. As with CSTT’s sponsorship of school leavers onto our Year 13 BSc Access Module, the focus on the recipients of the bursary relate to widening participation with applications especially welcomed from BAME, LGBTQ+, lower socio-economic, disabled and care leaver candidates.

‘Bucking the trend’

In summary, we are bucking the trend in providing high-quality online learning opportunities to support vocational study in the Built Environment and doing all we can to increase access to our education for underrepresented groups.

We have forged a fiercely independent university difficult to pigeonhole but resilient to the challenges of an ever-changing modern world and dedicated to supporting the sector to be a success.

I am proud to be Principal of an institution which is highly innovative and successful in what it does but this work often appears to be unnoticed and undervalued within Higher Education. UCEM’s uniqueness is its strength and, in light of the current press coverage relating to education providers as a whole, emphasises the need to not ‘judge a book by its cover’.

At UCEM, we are committed to contributing to a better Built Environment sector through excellence in online education. We deliver approved apprenticeship programmes, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. For more information take a look at our Study With UCEM page.

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