The class of UA92: Uni’s coming home

The England boys couldn’t quite bring it home, but a new higher education start-up might. Will University Academy 92 be game-changing?

The words ‘innovative’ and ‘unique’ are nearly ubiquitous in university marketing circles. They litter press releases, newsletters and website copy alike. Hype rarely matches substance – with 162 higher education institutions in the UK, few can be genuinely ‘unique’. But University Academy 92 (UA92) might just be an exception. After all, how many other institutions can claim Lancaster University and Gary Neville as founders? UA92, which is due to welcome its first students in September 2019, aspires to offer more than a degree. It advertises an education that is embedded in, and looks forward to, working life through partnerships with leading companies like Microsoft; aiming to untangle clichés about academic education as an ivory tower and instead stress the employability of its graduates. As Craig Gaskell, incoming Principal and CEO, argued: “It’s about helping people get into roles, developing broad-base skills that employers will value. Strong communication skills, resilience, emotional intelligence – these will be a core emphasis.”

Craig knows a thing or two about employability. He comes to UA92 off the back of successfully founding the start-up institution CU Scarborough, an offshoot of the University of Coventry, in four years; taking it from concept through to “deliver[ing] a £30 million building in a £50 million campus, and graduating our first students”. A core pillar of UA92, as with CU Scarborough, is social mobility: encouraging students who might not have considered higher education to attend and bequeathing a positive surplus of graduates to deprived areas. “It’s about ensuring there’s really high education in this part of the world,” Craig commented. “It provides opportunity; it creates an alternative.”

The degree offerings at UA92 have been similarly chosen because they offer graduates a variety of potential avenues to employment. Spanning media, business, psychology and sport, they are supported by a ‘golden triangle’ of expertise: industry experience from Microsoft; academic excellence from Lancaster University; and UA92’s unique selling point – the ‘Class of 92’, compromising the ex-footballers and pundits Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville.

It’s not as unlikely a mix as it first appears. Though the ‘Class of 92’ rose to fame through their footballing talent, representing England and Manchester United throughout the ’90s, since retiring all five have forged impressive careers as managers, commentators and entrepreneurs. Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs even opened a luxury hotel in 2015 opposite Old Trafford called – what else? – Hotel Football. Craig is keen to stress that the disparate elements of these ex-footballers’ careers cohere in UA92: “It’s not a football university at all. Sport is an important part of the offering, but it’s experience of personal development that’s really valuable. Making the most of your talents, performing at the highest level, these things aren’t tied to sport; they’re vital life skills.”

Those life skills are nurtured at UA92 through its “target talent curriculum”. Based on the belief that employers look for emotional intelligence as much as academic ability in their graduates, it works to cultivate the ‘soft skills’ that are so often neglected in the scramble from school through university to working life. Students can expect to take five modules alongside their degree which focuses explicitly on their personal development, cultivating problem-solving, ethical leadership, communication and self-discipline. As Professor Simon Guy, Interim Principal, notes: “as well as giving you the specialist knowledge you’d expect from an academic education, we want graduates prepared to take on the world.”

Inclusivity is also central to UA92’s ethos. “UA92 is a deliberate attempt to offer something different to prospective students,” Professor Mark Smith, Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University, said. “It’s designed to attract people who might not otherwise have chosen university.” This approach is admirable: despite the ongoing debate around the costs of higher education in the UK, most research suggests that graduates earn more over the course of their lifetimes. A BBC analysis found that, on average, university pays: female graduates are likely to be better-off by £250,000 over the course of their lifetimes than their peers who didn’t go to university; for men that figure is £170,000. Students shouldn’t be put-off this potential windfall by the perception that university is an unwelcoming and intimidating environment, or that it neglects employability.

University, though, offers something more intangible than financial reward, Craig suggests. “Until people have gone through the higher education journey, you can’t take intellectual and character development for granted. It’s like climbing a mountain: once you’ve gone on that journey you see other peaks, other vistas. The world looks different.” As for whether the world needs another university – even one backed by such starry names as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes – Craig is confident that UA92 is different. “The world doesn’t need another university like all the others; that’s why UA92’s approach is so important. I think what we’re doing will inform the rest of the sector.”

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