A school where courses are designed by business
Pearson College, the newest institution of higher education in Britain, does not have ancient ivy-covered buildings or a grassy quadrangle where students can while away the hours debating whether Plato or Aristotle came closer to the truth.
But with its base on The Strand in London, at the headquarters of Pearson, a publishing and educational conglomerate that owns Penguin Books, The Financial Times newspaper and a 50 per cent stake in The Economist magazine, the college promises students more than just a pretty view across the Thames.
“What we offer is the chance to study business within a very successful business,” Roxanne Stockwell, the college’s managing director, said in an interview on campus. The current cohort, which began classes in September, are all studying for a degree in business and enterprise.
However, the school plans to eventually offer a full undergraduate curriculum as well as certain master’s degree programmes. Over time they plan for hundreds, and then thousands, of students. “Ultimately we want to become a university,” said Stockwell.
First, they had to attract 40 students willing to risk their futures on a university with no traditions, no alumni network and no established reputation. For the next few years, until a law changes to allow the college to issue its own degrees, students will actually graduate from a University of London College.
About half the first class was recruited during the “clearing period,” when British students who failed to gain admission to their first-choice schools are offered places elsewhere; the rest are Pearson employees.
“I was originally hoping to go to Warwick to study law and business,” said Edward Riddle who, at 18, is one of the youngest members of the freshman class. “But after work experience in a law firm I thought maybe law isn’t something I want to do for the next three years. This gave me a chance to develop my business skills, and a chance to be a pioneer.”
Thasleemah Faradi, 31, had already spent several years working as a customer service team leader in Britain after completing high school in her native Mauritius. “I want to run my own business, and this course allows me to develop as an entrepreneur,” Faradi said. For her, the Pearson name was also an important factor in attracting her to the school. “It’s a recognised brand, so you know there is some credibility at stake,” she said.
All students are guaranteed six-week internships with one of the college’s corporate partners, which include Cisco, BT and the Peter Jones Foundation. Students can choose to study either at Pearson headquarters in London or at the company’s offices in Salford Quays in Manchester. Students are also offered the chance to complete their degrees in two, three, or four years.
Tuition for the accelerated two-year mode is £8,000 a year, or about $12,800, adding up to £16,000 in total for the degree. For both the three- and four-year options the total comes to £19,500, which is considerably less than the £27,000 British universities are allowed to charge. Financial aid is available, and the four-year option is designed to allow students to work while they study.
The British government has pledged to ease the entry of private providers into higher education, but its failure to propose a new higher education bill so far means that Pearson has had to comply with the existing framework. This means that any institution awarding degrees must be approved by the Privy Council, a group of advisers to the queen.
As a result, although Pearson College students will study a curriculum designed by the company, their degrees will be validated by Royal Holloway, a college of the University of London.
“Current rules require a track record of four years of delivering degree programmes before you can even apply to become a college,” said Stephen Jackson, an official at the Quality Assurance Agency, which is in charge of academic standards at British universities. “A validation arrangement allows them to get that track record.”
One distinctive feature of the new college is the direct involvement of business and industry in designing courses. The unit on strategic management was developed in consultation with Sony Pictures, while the introduction to marketing was developed with Nationwide Insurance and the cosmetics company L’Oréal.
“We want to move higher education out of hammered-beam halls and into the world. We also want Pearson College to serve as a conduit for companies that want to participate in higher education,” Stockwell said.
Kaplan, which began as a test preparation company, currently runs several campuses in the United States. In Britain, BPP, a subsidiary of the US company Apollo, received permission from the Privy Council to award degrees in 2007.
Pearson College, however, is the first such institution to develop within a major, diversified corporation. Given the growth of private education around the world — and the fact that European governments no longer monopolise higher education — it might not be the last.
Under its outgoing chief executive, Marjorie Scardino, Pearson transformed itself into a company increasingly focused on education; her successor, John Fallon, currently heads the company’s education unit. It is a major player in standardised testing and assessment, and was the world’s largest textbook publisher even before a merger was announced in October with Random House.
“Pearson is primarily an education company,” Stockwell said. “In the past couple of years we’ve been getting increasingly in the delivery of education,” she added, citing the company’s 2010 acquisition of Wall Street Institute, which offers English-language instruction in 27 countries.
Stockwell said that the company planned on investing millions of pounds in the college, with a proposed degree course in English literature and professional writing drawing on the resources of the Financial Times.
“Eventually we hope to end up generating some kind of surplus,” she said.
However, she rejected comparisons with for-profit providers like the University of Phoenix in the United States, which announced recently that it would close 115 locations after being criticized for its recruiting practices, high student debt burden and low graduation rates.
Instead, students were chosen on the basis of their communications skills and their ability to collaborate.
“We wanted people who could sit in a meeting and maintain eye contact,” said Stockwell. The curriculum places a lot of emphasis on problem solving and teamwork, “which can be difficult to do in a traditional academic environment, where collaboration can be seen as cheating, or plagiarism,” she said.
“When you look at the role of the traditional university, a lot of what was taught was values and etiquette,” she said. “It was really about being a gentleman — which was also vocational because you needed to understand those values to operate in a certain hierarchy. But the world has changed, and our students will need to understand and be embedded in the modern business community.”
“I wanted a course that would bridge the gap between academic knowledge and business experience,” said Faradi, the student from Mauritius.
“Business degrees can be very theoretical,” Riddle, the freshman, added. “Young people can graduate completely unprepared for the real world of work. That isn’t going to happen to us.”