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Conceptions of what is excellent in higher education are starting to change

Professor Edward Peck, NTU VC

Professor Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, outlines strategies adopted by NTU that are boosting social mobility and which helped it win the inaugural Guardian University of the Year award, a gong he believes shows how notions of excellence in HE are changing.


There are two aphorisms that have guided my leadership of NTU since I arrived in August 2014. The first is from Proverbs: ‘where there is no vision the people perish’. The second is a quote attributed to William Blake: ‘They who would do good must do so in small particulars’.

The first was evident in the process of collective strategy formulation that in July 2015 produced ‘Creating the University of the Future’, our manifesto for the next five years. Constructed around five themes expressed in ten words – Creating Opportunity, Valuing Ideas, Enriching Society, Connecting Globally and Empowering People – it articulated a set of shared ambitions around which most of us wanted to focus our efforts.

The second was expressed in the specific commitments we made to deliver the means that would deliver the ends. Social mobility was a major focus of the strategy; 25 per cent of our UK undergraduate students come from households with a combined income of £15k or less. Getting graduate level employment or entering graduate level training on graduation is one of the keys that enable social mobility. We knew that embedding work placements into the curriculum increased the chances of our students being offered a job or a course and so we undertook to offer every one of the over 8,000 undergraduate students that join us each year an assessed work experience integrated into programme design.

Some of my colleagues might argue this was not a small particular. Indeed, some suggested it could not be done. However, since 2014 our Graduate Prospects figure has risen from just around 60 per cent to just over 80 per cent, as measured by the DLHE survey. There is now no difference in our rates of graduate employment or training between our students from the most and least privileged backgrounds. The same is true overall of our black students and our white students. 

Achieving this has required determined and purposeful effort from our much expanded Employability Team. It has necessitated a redesign and revalidation of all of our undergraduate programmes, with employability being one of nine dimensions against which courses were reviewed in order to deliver the aspirations of the strategy. It has started to transform colleagues from academic tutors into personal coaches, supported by the most sophisticated student data analytics in the country. 

We believe this is a great story. But even great stories do not tell themselves. We have worked hard to ensure that this narrative is understood by politicians, policy-makers, media, peers, parents and students. Awards, such as being named The Guardian University of the Year, are a crucial part of conveying our message. 

Why does it matter? Well, they give all of us at NTU the confidence to keep on challenging ourselves, our own assumptions and those of others.  The value of past degrees held by our alumni is enhanced, current students see their judgement in coming to NTU vindicated, and future students are more likely to consider an application to NTU. External partners – such as those exploring apprenticeships - become increasingly interested in working with us. This provides a firm financial base to underpin future innovations. In our case, strong values have made for a strong business. 

Beyond these immediate benefits, the growing success of NTU and institutions similar to us means that the prejudices and paradigms about what it is to be an outstanding higher education institution have started to change. Universities have come under an unusual – and in some instances unwelcome – amount of outside scrutiny in recent years. Much of this has been unfair and ill-informed. Some of it, however, does merit consideration. The more diverse the conceptions of excellence within the sector then the wider the variety of ways we will have available to us to respond to these legitimate concerns, either collectively or individually. This has to be good for society as much as it is for the vibrancy of the universities within which we work.