Universities - it's about asking the hard questions


I am speaking on Wednesday about innovation in higher education. I thought I might lay out my speech outline today to see if I can grab some useful feedback from readers ahead of the event.

On one level it is odd to imply there is an issue with innovation in HE. Universities are by their nature hotbeds of new thinking.  Whether it is UCL opening a new campus in East London, Newcastle’s work on becoming a truly civic institution or Northampton’s decision (working with the RSA) to become ‘a leader in social innovation’, every university can point not only to their best teaching and research but also to significant changes in the ways they work. Furthermore, while the requirement under the Research Assessment Exercise that departments show ‘impact’ from their work has been roundly criticised in some academic circles, my impression is that it is opening up new debates and helping those who have always argued for faculty to engage more fully with the world outside academe.

And yet, while this is to be welcomed, it is also arguably the case that most HE innovation is both incremental and largely constrained by the core assumptions and business models of the sector. Truly ‘social innovation’ involves more fundamental questioning, indeed the starting point for this kind of step change is recognition that key aspects of the current system are increasingly problematic.

I plan to suggest four big challenges which could form the starting point for a more radical process of questioning and – subsequently – innovation. In summary these are:

The essence of the student offer: as Stefan Collini has pointed out, there is fundamental tension between the idea of students as learners (which implies they defer to teachers) and students as customers (which implies their preferences are sovereign). Also, some aspects of the student offer may become less powerful (eg course content in a world of free on-line access to some of the best courses in the world) while others become more important (most obviously, the securing of employment).  In the US rising fees in the best universities have been accompanied by escalating investment in things like sports, catering and recreation facilities – is that how we want the taxpayers’ subsidy to fees being channelled in England?

The relationship between universities and their localities: reading a presentation by Newcastle’s  John Goddard – one of our leading advocates  for the civic university – I came across this quotation from Gerard Delanty ‘The great significance of the university is that it can be the most important site of connectivity in the knowledge society…and…a key institution for the formation of cultural and technological citizenship…and…for reviving the decline of the public sphere’. Yet, generally only a fraction of the capacity that universities could bring to the places they inhabit is explicitly tapped.

The nature of universities: according to John Goddard’s research, local public agencies (like councils) often find the authority structure of universities opaque and diffuse; this is a barrier to collaboration. While the relative autonomy of faculty from the university administration is a virtue, and the tendency of academics to view the hierarchy of their discipline as more important than the hierarchy of university leadership is inevitable, it still leaves the problem for universities of how – as institutions - to mobilise to meet shared challenges and pursue overarching objectives.

The core business model: HE is expensive and like all labour intensive industries its costs comparative to the rest of the economy are continuing to rise.  Part of this lies in the complex nature of a university combining the characteristics of a knowledge business (research), a large scale service provider (undergraduate teaching), and a wider public purpose in relation to human development and social capacity. With, among other things, a competitive market, the constant demands for greater efficiency and the growth of international private teaching universities using sophisticated distance learning methods, universities may increasingly need to question their core business model.

Any views on whether these are the right issues to provoke a deeper, broader approach to innovation are most welcome.


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