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Changing to stay the same

It has become almost universally accepted that our universities must adapt to the world they live in. Whether it is government policy on fees, Brexit, the TEF, OfS, the expectations of millennials, international competition, or the opportunity offered by new technologies, universities find themselves beset by a barrage of external change to which they must respond and adapt.

Of course, universities have always adapted, learned and moved on – that is the basis of academic enquiry and the heart of the sector’s strength. Across higher education, universities are offering new courses, attracting new students and innovating in how they work. But most university leaders will admit – at least in private – that universities don’t do that nearly as quickly or as confidently as they would like.

The stakes are higher than ever before. UK universities now operate in an environment that has many (though not all) of the characteristics of a market. They compete for students, compete for staff, compete for research funding, compete for league table standings, compete for TEF awards.

Rightly or wrongly, the competitive dynamic is here to stay. Even if student fees were abolished as some politicians have advocated, it is hard to imagine students throwing away their new found status as consumers of higher education and returning to their former role as grateful recipients of whatever universities chose to dispense. That particular genie is too far out of the bottle to be recaptured. Similarly, the global market for higher education is now simply too big and mobile for it to be anything other than highly competitive.

There are voices – including some from people like me who advise the sector – who argue that the answer to survival in this world is for universities to become more ‘business-like’. I disagree. The answer, surely, is that they should become more ‘university-like’ – focusing on what they are good at and emphasising the very things that make them different.

At their best, universities are innovators, risk-takers and pioneers and it is these characteristics that should be brought to the forefront. Often, my experience is that university leaders are keen for their institutions to develop, and academic and professional staff alike share an ambition to deliver the very best teaching and research. And yet so often they move at a slow pace and fail to grasp new opportunities as fully as they might. Institutional inertia, governance by consent, and the ability of individual stakeholders to stop progress, seem to stifle innovation.

Innovation Matters: What are the 'innovation leaders' doing right?

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In becoming more ‘university-like’, institutional leaders need to focus on three key features to ensure that their universities adapt and succeed:

  • Relevance. If universities are to prosper they must be relevant to the societies in which they exist. Such a view is often taken to be a reductionist perspective but in fact it is the opposite; far from being a suggestion that universities should operate merely as trainers of school leavers about to enter the job market, it means that they should assert their importance as critical builders of knowledge and human capital. Whether they are curing disease, seeking solutions to global conflict, inventing nano-technologies, or developing our understanding of literature, they must be relevant and be willing to engage with society to show how that is the case. True relevance could mean substantial change for some – more flexible models, mixed-mode pedagogy, learning while earning and block study for example.
  • Excellence. It is the universities that are good at what they do that will prosper. Excellence in the development of knowledge and the inspiration of learners is critical for all. That is as true for a research-intensive Russell Group as it is for a post-92 focused on practical application of knowledge – neither will prosper if they are not good at what they do. In the new world, being excellent across all academic and professional operations will be critical: good enough will not do.
  • Agility. Universities have traditionally been slow to respond to external influences; ‘slow but sure’ has often been the motif. But the pace of externally driven change will surely only increase. Those institutions that are Agile will have the ability to adapt continuously to be the most successfulThat may mean changing some deep-rooted ways of working as universities build the ability to be ahead of the game rather than responding after the event.

Our work means we get to see many university strategy documents. It is interesting to note how many of those claim ‘distinctiveness’ – often followed by the same grand plans about teaching, research and knowledge exchange. Perhaps true distinctiveness comes not from what a university is seeking to do, but from the way that it goes about it; those that are distinctively good at relevance, excellence and agility may well prove to be those that are the success stories of the future.

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