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The UK's outmoded universities must modernise or risk falling far behind

mike boxall | the guardian | 29 june 2015

University leaders are in the dock of public and political opinion. They are being pressed to justify the cost, quality and relevance of current models of higher education provision against criticisms that they are “awash with cash”, students are being short-changed and graduates are ill-prepared for modern working lives. 

But rather than engage with their critics, the default response of sector bodies and spokespeople has often been to reiterate the virtues of the status quo and to deny the need for major reforms. 

The latest survey of university leaders by PA Consulting reveals similar attitudes. The survey, which looked at innovation in higher education provision, revealed a disconcerting paradox at the heart of the university system. Asked about seven global trends, ranging from curriculum reforms to personalised learning pathways, vice-chancellors were united in acknowledging the importance of them all. Yet, when asked how they rated the responsiveness of UK universities, and that of their own institutions in particular, most vice-chancellors were disparaging. In almost every area of educational innovation, they saw the UK lagging international competitors and said the most important developments were happening overseas. Where universities were developing new student propositions, the initiatives were often confined to pockets within the institution’s operations and not adopted widely.

The reasons cited for this laggardly response will be familiar to any observer of the university system: an inherently conservative and risk-averse culture in most institutions; sclerotic systems and processes designed for a different world, and a lack of capacity, skills and willingness to change among an ageing academic community. All these are reinforced by perceptions that most proposed innovations are over-hyped and that current ways of operating have plenty of life left in them yet.

These are the traits of an insular and even arrogant mind-set. It flies in the face of the difficult market environment in which universities must now compete: most vice-chancellors expect little or no growth in any of their current revenue sources over the coming decade. And it also appears to deny the need for universities to rethink their engagement with a global, digital and networked world.


Lagging behind: are UK universities falling behind in the global innovation race

download the report

This is, of course, unfair on the many universities that have invested time, effort and money in modernising their management systems and enhancing the services they provide to their students. Many universities have made themselves much more professional and efficient in the ways they recruit and enrol students, facilitate student experiences and manage their resources. But even among these institutions the reforms have been focused mainly on the non-academic processes and operations under the control of central professional services.

In contrast, academic practices and provision have remained largely no-go areas for modernising university leadership teams, which lack the levers or the authority to force changes. As a result we see the persistence of outmoded courses, delivery modes and teaching methods that no one seems able or willing to change. 

Many academics believe they are defending academic freedom and autonomy against the predations of managerialism and marketisation. To outsiders it seems more like a stubborn refusal to recognise that the world is moving on. 

Several vice-chancellors commented in our survey that challenging the atavistic culture of universities and pressing reforms through obstructive governance structures requires a high degree of personal bravery. They point to the examples of ex-vice-chancellors, in the UK and overseas, who have gone out on a reforming limb, only to see the branch sawn off behind them. 

What the university system needs today is more brave leaders, willing to grasp the nettles of creating more relevant, accountable and student-centred university provision. It will be painful and perhaps even dangerous for some but, as some universities are already finding, not as painful or dangerous as the alternatives. 

Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group

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