In the media

A new leadership breed is refocusing UK universities on local need

By Ian Matthias, Mike Boxall

Times Higher Education

09 December 2021

This article was first published in Times Higher Education

A quiet revolution is reshaping the UK’s university system. Despite, or perhaps because of, continuing uncertainties around fees, recruitment and course preferences, many vice-chancellors are driving radical realignments of their universities’ mission and strategies to address pressing social and economic demands. We are seeing the emergence of what has been called the “University 4.0” and the “University for Others”.

Our latest survey of the experiences and intentions of UK vice-chancellors reveals that universities are moving away from historical emphases on winning reputational advantages over other providers and towards direct partnerships with their local economies and communities, directed by prescriptive five-year plans.

In a marked shift from our previous surveys, more than 60 per cent of vice-chancellors rated “recruiting from under-represented and/or local student groups” as their first or second strategic priority, while 45 per cent ranked “supporting local or sectoral economic and workforce needs”. In contrast, only 10 per cent gave their top ranking to “recruiting only the most academically able students”.

There is much more to this nascent movement than institutional altruism or playing to current policy concerns. Through direct engagement with the demands of levelling up and workforce capabilities, universities are insulating themselves from the increased precariousness of their inherited business models.

A number have established direct links with large local or regional employers, especially in the health and public services sectors, to provide “tied” education and training pathways. These deals generate double benefits: meeting local employment needs and improving opportunities while giving the universities a baked-in flow of recruits, shielded from the vagaries of the open marketplace.

Other localised levelling-up initiatives have generated mutual benefits beyond the original expectations. For example, a partnership between one university and its local premiership football team, originally based on limited community sports projects, has grown into a wider collaboration with local schools, colleges and community groups. This is creating new educational opportunities for disadvantaged groups. It has also fostered new degree and research programmes, such as in sports sciences.

Two exceptional factors have added impetus to universities’ place-based strategies. One is the Covid-related initiatives that saw many universities opening up their facilities and expertise to local health services, front-line workers and communities. Several vice-chancellors told us that these experiences had greatly enhanced interactions between their staff and civic agencies, which had carried forward into post-Covid rebuilding and other collaborations.

A second, less tangible, factor has been an unprecedented volume of turnover within university leadership. We estimate that at least one-third of UK universities have or soon will have new vice-chancellors, compared with our last survey two years ago. Whatever the reasons, there is an emerging new generation of leaders, including a long-overdue increase in the proportion of women. They seem to be spending less time on national political lobbying and focusing instead on the interests and strategies of their own institutions. Some spoke of operating “under the political radar”, prioritising healthier and more effective relationships and teamwork with their own staff, students and stakeholders.

Direct engagement with local and regional economic and social ecosystems offers the prospect of a higher education sector that is more relevant, open and valuable to a fast-changing society. But it also brings new challenges. One question is whether universities can really make sustainable livings from novel educational and knowledge services, given the advancing erosion of their traditional income sources. Almost two-thirds of vice-chancellors identified possible future cuts to regulated tuition fees as a critical risk to their institution, with more than 30 per cent equally concerned about caps on student admissions and 21 per cent highly worried about limits on course offers.

Rather than waiting to see if these risks materialise, many universities have launched ambitious plans to grow alternative sources of revenue, especially through online educational services; 33 per cent are planning for at least 25 per cent growth from these sources.

These developments can transform the higher education system, creating more differentiated and resilient institutions that make real differences to their local communities. As one optimistic vice-chancellor put it: “Do the right things and the money will flow.”

Ian Matthias is head of higher education and Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting

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