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HEi-think: HE needs practical tools to navigate turbulent times

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As UK higher education enters a period of unprecedented change and uncertainty, Tony Strike, University Secretary and Director of Strategy at the University of Sheffield, says that more than ever before universities need reliable practical tools to guide them through the challenges they face.

 

We think we know what a University is. John Henry Newman wrote it down. “It is the place […] in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find it’s equal in some antagonistic activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth. It is a place where enquiry is pushed forward and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.”¹ 

With increasing funding, policy and governance differences between the nations in the UK regarding how to run higher education only this common purpose holds universities together while we suffer the disruptive forces of competition and devolution. But even what still binds us will be challenged if ‘for-profit’ providers become a proportionately larger presence in England, bringing mercantile values to bear.

The charitable purposes of the chartered and ancient universities for the public good will not be an identifiable commonality as we tangle with the ideology of consumers, products, prices and outcomes. The sector, if it can be called that, is dealing with risk, uncertainty and competition in a changed legislative and regulatory environment. In Scotland the Higher Education Governance Act and in England the Higher Education and Research Act fracture the sector in different ways.

What universities will have in common is the need to anticipate and prepare for the challenging political, economic, social and technological context in which they will have to operate. Universities more traditional governance, leadership, strategy and planning norms will be tested. Institutional sustainability will not only be about future performance and financial forecasts but also require governing bodies to ask what it is they have in trust to sustain for future generations of learners, teachers and discoverers.

The pay, pension and facilities liabilities arising from operating universities are increasing. This was always true and the recent more typical response has been to seek to grow income (and debt) faster than the growth in costs. As sources of income with any cash margin, including international students, are challenged by the domestic political context so new approaches are being explored. Some institutions are retrenching, looking at costs and efficiency. Others are looking to sustain or create distinctiveness in particular areas through strategic choices. Yet others are looking to new activity and income streams. Others are looking for new innovative and collaborate partnerships with universities, industry and the private sector here and abroad.

While universities are recorded as having a national or international rank in third party league tables which impose a single vertical classification of a uniform type the reality is that we are witnesses to increasing institutional diversity and fragmentation of mission. Students and research funders will have choices not only informed by differentiated performance but through different institutional positioning. 

In England, teaching and research are now to be broken apart by the newly imposed separation of funding and regulation at the point students leave the lecture theatre or laboratory, and reinforced by the separate Research and Teaching Excellence Frameworks, which are perhaps administratively convenient but which misunderstand or ignore the research-teaching nexus.  The Government’s Green Paper on developing an Industrial Strategy lends hope to the idea the relationship between research, innovation and advanced knowledge in a high skill economy remains understood in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if not in the Department for Education, which thinks universities should sponsor and run Schools for children.

Some universities are exploring new ways of teaching and researching using technology enhanced learning, for example by using virtual reality and augmented reality devices. Some are pursuing Degree Apprentices as a new form of education, which develops advanced vocational skills alongside the understanding and critical thinking demanded from higher education.

We are undoubtedly in a period of flux, which historians of higher education will synthesize and later write about as unprecedented and transformational. We might continue to hope that despite the utilitarian outcomes sought by the Teaching Excellence Framework that just as Newman had suggested the true measure of a university might still lie in the mark it leaves on the alumnus's minds.

For now, we need practical tools to help guide the way.  In turbulent times, leaders have always turned to others for advice about the future to guide decisions about today. While I have invoked a classical work when talking about the present turbulence in universities it is nevertheless the case that Prophets, Sybils, Sages, Oracles and Seers are out of fashion. The tools used in today’s age of rationalism are scenario planning, analysis, forecasting and expert opinions based in data, reason and knowledge. Reaffirming values, formulating strategy, making plans, analysing risk, monitoring performance, these are the disciplines of modern university governance and management. Helped by the encouragement of the Higher Education Strategic Planners Association (HESPA) the professional guidebook ‘Higher Education Strategy and Planning’, published on 30 June 2017, draws expert contributors from across the sector to offer contemporary descriptions and critical reflections on professional practice in the use of these tools to the service of the academy.

 

Tony Strike is University Secretary and Director of Strategy at the University of Sheffield. Tony is editor of ‘Higher Education Strategy and Planning’ published by Routledge in June 2017,(www.routledge.com/9781138635210) , chair of the Russell Group Directors of Strategy and Planning and a member of the HESPA national executive.

 

¹Newman, J.H. et al (1996). The Idea of a University (Turner F., Ed.). Yale University Press.

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