Jesse Norman is Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire.
It is the great original ‘what-if?’ of British higher education. In the year 1209, more than 800 years ago, there was severe rioting in Oxford against the academics, and a group of scholars decided to leave to found a new university.
They headed west, riding 75 miles to Hereford, a cathedral city which had become a European centre of learning in mathematics and cosmology.
Over time, the new university grew, different colleges were established, students flocked there, businesses were created, industries formed. The University of Hereford became both a global academic powerhouse, and a global commercial centre, in software, electronics, life sciences and a host of other areas, driving growth across the West Midlands and the rest of the UK.
Except of course, it didn’t. All this is true, but those scholars didn’t go west; they rode 75 miles east, to found Cambridge University. Herefordshire remained a virtual higher education not-spot for eight centuries, and the rest is history.
Today, however, thanks to amazing local entrepreneurship and inspired government support, all that is changing. For the first cohort of paying students arrives today at NMITE, the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering.
This is UK tertiary education, Jim, but not as we know it. It embodies a radical new approach based on the best global practice and leading institutions; an approach which has the potential both to transform how students become engineers, and to write a new operating system for how to level up across the UK.
So what’s different about NMITE?
First, it gives students an accelerated, focused education, to a Masters degree in Integrated Engineering in three years, not the standard four. Students’ learning time is 9am to 5pm, Monday-Friday, for 46 weeks of the year. So when they graduate they’re already fully prepared for the workplace, but they also have clear and unambiguous downtime in which to play, do sport, and socialise.
Second, NMITE students work by hands-on learning-by-doing in small teams, in an engineering studio like their future work environments. There are no lecture halls. They work on a constant flow of real-world challenges, set by real employers, so they learn both academic content and professional practice from the start.
Third, NMITE students don’t learn by going to Prof Jones’s lectures every Tuesday at 2pm. Instead, Prof Jones gets the student group for 3.5 week learning modules called Sprints. each one dedicated to solving a practical engineering problem, plus going on visits to see how others do it, hosting outside experts etc.
Fourth, you can graduate from prestigious engineering UK universities only having worked on one or two actual engineering projects. At NMITE, students do 17-20 smaller practical projects, plus a long project, plus specific modules so that they have the formal training especially in maths and physics that they need as well.
Fifth, NMITE has been designed to be as open and inclusive as possible. Because the focus is on concentrated learning and practice, it does not have formal academic entry requirements such as a mandatory Maths A-Level. Even so, it has been fully validated by the Open University – itself the great educational disruptor of its day.
Instead of specific A-Levels, NMITE looks for five qualities in a student: grit, curiosity, passion, creativity and collaboration. They want students who can deal with adversity, who can learn and think independently, who have deep interests or hobbies, who can work imaginatively through problems, and who are team players. It doesn’t matter what school you went to, what your background is, or who your parents are.
Finally, this “whole student” approach means learning shaped not just by engineers, but by others from economics, geopolitics, culture, technology, ethics, design, the arts, humanities, finance, marketing and business. There is an emphasis on self-reliance, community spirit and volunteering which reflects the values of Hereford as a garrison city in a rural setting.
This revolutionary approach has been carefully worked out and trialled over time, as well as being academically validated by the Open University. Much of it is based on the experience of universities such as Olin College near Boston, which was only founded in 1997 but is already recognised as among the very best in the world.
Olin has found, among other things, that their emphasis on practice and creativity appears to be very good for students’ mental health. One of their courses has a simple requirement: find some people and help them. That’s a million miles away from the anomie and lack of purpose that so many students encounter today.
But here are two other things. First, none of this would be possible without the flexibility of student fees, the opening up of higher education and the steadfast support of the Department of Education and successive Conservative governments since 2010. This is quiet, enabling leadership at its very best.
And finally, from the start NMITE has been carefully documenting its progress, its mistakes and successes. It is, in effect, writing the operating system for how to set up a radically new kind of small “liberal sciences” engineering and technology institution from scratch.
Take a look around: everywhere you will see that education and skills are at the centre of levelling up. In a few years, NMITE will have a formula that we can apply to level up in dozens of other places across the UK. And in Herefordshire it will have started to fill that original gap, left 800 years ago.