Partner institution focus: Changing lives by degrees at GSM London

In November of last year, they received a national award for the way they have invested in their infrastructure and student experience, and they have just announced that Sir Bob Burgess, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, is to be their new Chair of the Board of Directors.

By any measure, it’s been quite a story for GSM London over the past couple of years – and it’s one that has perhaps not been fully appreciated across the University community. Founded in 1973, it has been transformed from a niche college of around 1,000 students as recently as 2011, to the 7,000-strong institution of today, backed by significant investment from Sovereign Capital. 

“Our academic model is much closer to a university than many people might think,” says Professor Alison Wride, Provost at GSM, who along with CEO Alison Wheaton leads the institution. “We have a full range of courses across business, law, finance, travel and tourism, all approved by Plymouth; we have faculties and deans; staff who are research active; a vibrant students’ union, and a full community engagement programme. But we’re also distinctive and different, with a necessarily nimble business model.”

Joining in 2012, the former Deputy Director of the Business School at the University of Exeter came on board just as the institution was respondingto a critical Quality Assurance Agency Institutional Review. It was a review that it had actively sought, and with Plymouth’s support, GSM made rapid changes to ensure it was meeting expectations within the year.

“One of the misconceptions of private providers is that they are something of a soft touch when it comes to regulation – that we ‘get away with’ low quality,” Alison says.
“Maybe that was true in the past, but it certainly isn’t now. If anything, we havetwice the amount of regulation – and Plymouth has been highly supportive in that arena.”

That GSM London offers a very different model of education is certainly without debate. It draws 80%  of its students from an urban catchment area within ten minutes of its two campuses – Greenwich and Greenford, in the South East and West respectively – and has a student mix that includes 35% above the age of 30. It has three entry points per year, with just 15% of its intake coming through UCAS. The majority enrol having responded to direct recruitment, local marketing, or word-of-mouth. Every  tudent is offered a one-to-one interview to establish their academic aspirations, and there is a highly successful foundation year for those who do not have English as a first language.

“Some of our students have not performed so well at school and simply don’t understand the  echanism of higher education, fi nances etc.,” says Alison. “They are hungry for education and qualifi cations, but have not had the advice and guidance they need.
“But I can tell you, I have never worked in an institution with so many interesting back-stories. Our  student body includes a relatively high number of first generation UK citizens, including former asylum seekers, and many are single parents or were working full time in low paid jobs. By the time they graduate, they are heading for jobs in the city or are starting their own businesses.”

The focus on social mobility and an ambition to become a powerful national voice in this area is  embedded within GSM London’s strategy, and it’s something that resonates deeply with Alison. Enrolling on an economics degree at Exeter as a mature student, having had a family early in life, Alison felt her outlook on life was transformed by university.

“I was alongside a cohort of mature students, many of whom were mothers returning to education, and you had a very real feeling for how lifechanging it was and how a degree gives you economic power,” she says. “It provides you with choices you would not otherwise have. And here, you really see the transformation of people’s lives on the ground.”

In November, GSM and the University hosted a first joint graduation ceremony in London and more will follow this year. Plymouth will also begin accrediting its postgraduate degrees as well. 

“Many of our conversations are around the things we can do together in the future,” says Alison. “I believe there’s a mutual respect there, and I know that when Plymouth staff visit us they are surprised to fi nd just how big we are and how much we have in common.” 
“We can be genuinely very proud of our partnership with GSM London,” adds Professor Simon Payne, Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Academic Partnerships. “They have been on a remarkable journey, and as anyone who has ever attended one of our joint graduation ceremonies willtell you, they have created a vibrant, exciting culture, with an incredibly positive buzz.”