The business of education

Pearson College London students

Rachel Hall at HE, published by Research Fortnight

As companies call for better graduate employability, Rachel Hall discovers how Pearson College London seeks to bridge the gap.

In a tall corporate building located on the Strand in central London, Pearson employees swipe their badges on turnstiles to enter their workplace. Some wear harried expressions, others carry bags of Pret sandwiches. Others still are a little more fresh-faced: they are young students armed with textbooks, heading for their Pearson College London lectures.

The office building is where the world’s largest education company is seeking to establish a new model of higher education, embedded in the business environment and with a focus on employer and industry engagement. The concept is reflected in the choice of location: students share break-out spaces and canteens with employees. According to Roxanne Stockwell, college principal, Pearson is looking to build an institution that is “inherently linked” with its core business. “We’re placing higher education directly with the modern, professional community,” she says.

As well as the college’s office location, there are strong links with employers. Students have access to company-based mentors both from within Pearson as well as to a network of 150 companies that the college has developed. All are offered an internship and college-wide site visits and workshops with business partners are organised regularly. All courses are developed in collaboration with industry partners, and time is equally split between traditional modes of academic learning and putting theory into practice. Industry experts are regularly brought in and are treated as “missing professors”, placed on equal footing with the resident academics.

Stockwell testifies to a “surprising” level of enthusiasm from the industry partners Pearson has approached, although she warns that it is important to reassure them that their involvement will be easy, as well as to be sensitive to their time constraints. “I think there’s a really strong interest among employers in the future of education and the way it’s developing,” she adds. “We’re exploring the different ways industry can work with higher education.”

The college recruited its first external students, who numbered just 17, in 2012 and has since grown to 220. So far 50 have graduated. Class sizes are typically 16 or 17, although elective units could be down to ten and there are regular one-on-one appraisals and tutor meetings. Fees are £9,000 but students who pass an applicant day are charged £6,500, which is £500 more than the loan they are eligible to obtain from the government. Although Stockwell, who joined in 2011, says Pearson expected to attract considerable interest from part-time students, in reality nearly all are full-time and aged between 18 and 22. She sees entrants as demonstrating characteristics associated with “early adopters”, motivated by an interest in trying a more career-focused alternative to the traditional university model.

All are from the UK: Pearson has not yet sought a license to recruit international students and plans not to do so until after it obtains degree-awarding powers. The fact that Theresa May, the home secretary, has made international recruitment “a difficult space” is an added incentive for the college to bide its time, Stockwell says. But in the longer run, Pearson College London is hoping for its parent company’s international branches to act as overseas campuses and to allow for exchange projects across different countries. The company also already owns a university in South Africa and has set up a joint venture in Mexico with a local university.

Pearson Day

All applicants are interviewed to assess their suitability for the college’s career-oriented method. Sarah Macdonald, vice-principal, says the college looks out for specific competences, such as communication skills and a sense of initiative, which is similar to how a job interview might be structured. Among those who made the cut is David Porter, who is studying for a BSc in business and enterprise. He says he picked Pearson College London for the small class sizes, the professional environment and industry links. He has been selected as a “student co-creator”, a role through which he provides feedback to the college on how the courses are run and devises ideas to help shape them in future.

The college also draws on the support of more established universities: Birkbeck College allows access to its library and the University of London permits Pearson College London students to participate in the union and societies. Macdonald says that the reception from other universities has been “refreshingly welcoming”. In addition to library access, all students are provided with an iPad stocked with their course content for the year upon registering and are encouraged to go online for their resources.

Degree programmes are validated by Royal Holloway, Ashridge, an independent business school in Berkhamsted, and the University of Kent. In selecting partners, Stockwell says that Pearson approached several universities and, after receiving “half a dozen” interested responses, selected Royal Holloway on grounds of cultural fit, its strong academic standards, links to London and similarity of age to Pearson. Ashridge was considered a good match thanks to its work in corporate engagement, while Kent had strong plans for potential research projects and good relationships with the management team.

Pearson now plans to create four schools that reflect different parts of company, says Stockwell. The business school most obviously relates to Pearson’s heritage as a long-standing blue chip company, while the creative industries school, currently only offering courses in visual effects, ties in with Pearson’s media links, as the former owner of the Financial Times group. Two new schools are envisaged for the future: education, which forms the bread and butter of Pearson’s current business offer, is set to offer continuous professional development for teachers; and applied science reflects the firm’s links with technology. Other approaches from companies, such as a request from ambulance providers for more paramedic training and an awareness of skills shortages in engineering, have so far been side-lined for not matching up to Pearson’s existing expertise.

Becoming a university

Pearson is hoping to produce papers and give presentations at conferences on how universities can better work with employers. “The area we would like to make a contribution is on how to work effectively with employers in higher education, we’re trialling different things and we are hoping to be able to share some of that,” says Stockwell.

Yet Pearson College London is open about its interest in becoming a fully-fledged university with degree awarding powers. The college has already been through a Quality Assurance Agency review process, which Stockwell describes as the initial stage, in that it requires providers to build the processes underpinning quality assurance, academic community, commitment to the student experience and on-going enhancement, such as the academic board, committee structures, and regular reporting.

Although Stockwell acknowledges that there is “a difficult balance” to strike between allowing new providers of higher education to enter the market and ensuring standards are maintained, she thinks the government has not yet found the optimal level. “I think we’ve got a strong need for a lot more innovation in the sector,” she says. “With all the different pressures today, change is inevitable, and can be a really good thing, and new providers are a part of that.” The fact that degree-awarding powers are conferred through a process of peer review “creates an inevitable cycle of conservatism”, she worries. “I sometimes call it the net curtain brigade of quality assurance: what will your neighbours think?” she says, given that it is easier to obtain university title by “looking the same as everyone else”. In her view, the barriers to entry are “much too high” and there should be more positive mechanisms introduced to help ease new providers onto the right path.

There are also reciprocal benefits for Pearson's wider business as a text-book publisher and education resources provider. The college allows it to obtain direct feedback on its products’ efficacy and students also give presentations to Pearson employees, allowing them to experience “life at the coalface” and inform future product design. This means that while the college, which is a separate legal entity, uses some of Pearson’s resources, when it doesn’t, it provides the company with useful data on the reasons for that decision. "Most of our business is about helping universities and colleges, so having our own experience is helpful,” Stockwell says.

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Students in 80 Strand

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