In Conversation | How ICMP Operates in Higher Education

ICMP’s Chief Executive Paul Kirkham and Professor Tony Harris, Dean of Academic Studies, discuss the challenges and opportunities of running a specialist higher education institution…



As a leading provider of specialist music education, ICMP has always embraced change and sought new opportunities. 

Over the past few years, ambitions have moved at pace with the opening of our Queen’s Park campus and attaining the huge milestone of Full Degree Awarding Powers (DAPs) to recognise the achievements of our students.

While ICMP has a history of over 35 years, these changes follow more than a decade of ICMP proactively and directly engaging with the Higher Education (HE) sector, the Government and the regulators, while making continuous improvements to our operations and infrastructure.

Here, ICMP Chief Executive Paul Kirkham and Professor Tony Harris, ICMP’s Dean of Academic Studies, discuss these changes, and what it means for ICMP and our students… 

What is it like to lead a small specialist institution in 2022? 

Paul Kirkham (PK): It’s fantastically challenging for smaller institutions like ICMP and we have worked tirelessly in our bid to have our aspirations listened to by the wider sector, the Government and the regulators.

Our recent achievements have come as part of a 10-year journey to create a truly level playing field where all providers meeting the required standards are treated equally and can enjoy equal opportunities in the sector. 

What have been the biggest challenges ICMP has faced? 

PK: It’s primarily been about growing ICMP to a size and structure where we can become influential and have the critical mass to deal with the many challenges we face, without losing the focus on our students and the quality of our provision that comes with being ‘small and specialist’.

For most of our history, there has never been any margin or surplus that would enable significant investment and we have had to live effectively ‘hand to mouth’. But that is now changing.

We’re well-placed to take advantage of opportunities for more strategic investment in our facilities and our provision to enable growth and development of the institution to the benefit of our students."


Tony Harris (TH): The challenge is that the sector generally offers a one-size fits all infrastructure which works better at a bigger university when it comes to economies of scale. And because the big universities have been around for so much longer, and have effectively shaped the sector to suit themselves, policies and systems have been designed with that model in mind. So meeting your obligations as a smaller institution in this landscape can be challenging. 

Larger universities have whole departments managing certain aspects of their operations, whether it be relating to Teaching Excellence Frameworks or NSS. They can’t manipulate the process but they can invest quickly and heavily in key areas and maximise their performance. Smaller institutions have more limited scope to take on these challenges. 

Regulation in the sector is extremely important but also complex to navigate. Can you share your experiences of working in such a highly regulated environment?

PK: We’ve always believed that regulation is important and healthy. But it should be appropriate and balanced. There are clearly different levels of resources institutions can dedicate to tackling the challenges of excessive regulation.

We definitely think HE should be properly regulated but we will always fight to make sure this is fair, reasonable and risk-based, and in the best interests of the students, rather than overly bureaucratic."

TH: It is good for a small and specialist institution like ICMP to operate in a properly regulated environment as we are able to prove we are on a par with other institutions through these processes. But there are sometimes issues with certain aspects which do not benefit the student experience. If we’re regulating without considering benefiting the student, then we need to question why we’re doing it in the first place. 

NSS is a classic example of this. We’ve had to work very hard in certain areas and we’re seeing huge gains thanks to our new approach, but we feel it’s had limited impact on the overall experience of students, who may have preferred us putting our energies elsewhere. 

For ICMP to have been awarded its own DAPs is a tremendous achievement - can you describe the journey that ICMP went on to achieve this honour?

PK: We’ve always had this sense of independence and self-sufficiency, and we are proud of what we do, so to receive our own DAPs is a formal recognition of this. I feel we have been essentially operating as an awarding body anyway but now we’re allowed to formally put our stamp on our programmes when students graduate. Across our team, there was this sense that this was very deserved and about time when we actually achieved it! 

TH: The biggest development in my time here is the impressive cohesiveness of the academic community which is the overarching criteria behind achieving DAPs. We’ve worked very hard to develop this and to bring our faculty together. Having this confirmed by the DAPs reviewers was a real achievement.


Looking to the future, how does ICMP see itself developing? Will it become like a traditional university or somehow different?

TH: The challenge of the last 10-15 years has been that in order to become a registered institution, subject to the same regulations and with access to the same benefits as more traditional providers, and ultimately achieving our own DAPs, we’ve had to conform to expectations in many ways. But we have retained our spirit of independence and have many ideas regarding how we can innovate into the future to the benefit of our students and the wider music industry! 

PK: It feels like we’re coming to the end of this stage of our journey - becoming a ‘university’ with our own degree awarding powers. The challenge for us now is to ask ourselves what we want to be in the future and ask our students what they really want from a provider like ICMP. Personally, I don’t want us to become like a traditional university. I want us to be different, more contemporary, more agile and innovative, useful and beneficial to the students and the industry.  

In order to progress, we have had to get to the point we’re coming to now. But soon we will be able to consider how we will revolutionise what we do next! I’ve always wanted to build a different kind of institution which positively influences the nature of HE in the wider sector. That’s what we’ll be working towards next.

Take the first steps in your music career with ICMP

We've been developing and delivering contemporary music education for over 30 years – longer than any other music school in the UK. With a proven track-record, countless music industry connections and unrivalled access to facilities, it's easy to see why hundreds of students choose ICMP each year. 

To completely immerse yourself in your music career, chat with our friendly Admissions Team via email or give them a call on 020 7328 0222.

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by ICMP staff writer
May 18, 2022
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