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An earthquake is coming for universities

  • 24 June 2020
  • By Andrew George

This blog was kindly contributed by Andrew JT George, executive coach and consultant in education and healthcare. Andrew has previously held senior positions in Brunel University London and Imperial College London.

Deep underground, tectonic plates bump and grind against each other, building immense pressure. The tensions remain latent and unrecognised for years until a sudden shift, an earthquake, changes the landscape forever. 

Over the last decades the tectonic plates of university mission and purpose, finance and student needs have been bumping and grinding away, and the strains have built up, though remaining largely invisible. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has been like a meteorite striking right at the fault lines. While the sector has responded to the immediate impact by ‘going online’, we need to understand how the plates will move and rearrange themselves. We need to actively shape this change to ensure the future of British higher education. 

One of the factors acerbating this build-up of tension has been a model of universities that assumes that all share a common purpose and are therefore in competition with each other. They compete for students, for research and for prestige, putting a strain on the system that is unsustainable.

A radical solution is needed, and the sector could do worse than look at some of the changes are happening in the NHS that had been accelerated by the response to the pandemic.

One of the key things is a concentration on an area (normally geographic) rather than on institutions. NHS trusts (i.e. hospitals) are losing power to regional control (increasingly Integrated Care Systems). Medical services are being transferred and amalgamated. In some cases, decades of trench warfare in which hospitals have doggedly defended some aspect of their provision against all competing providers, have been swept aside by necessity. 

Driven by the emergency, change has not always been thought through or implemented well. But it will improve patient care by making services more rational and efficient, by forcing cooperation and encouraging institutions to play to their strengths. Real thought is being put into how patients will get the best specialist care they need at an appropriate level and that means that doctors and other specialists are increasingly working across hospitals.

What might the lesson be for universities?

It may be that we need to weaken the power of institutions and work more at a regional level. Fundamental and applied research, as well as education and training, can be carried out across a network. These networks may serve geographical areas, but there may be overlapping networks serving industries such as healthcare. 

What will this mean in practice? The network will need to take greater thought of the needs of its stakeholders, especially students. It cannot treat students as a homogeneous group. Some students are looking for a transactional relationship with their university, where they obtain the training and qualifications that they need in a convenient and efficient manner. Others want an education that is more open-ended and academic. The needs and ambitions of students can change (hopefully in part because of their education) and there should be pathways allowing students to readily move between universities. This is an important for route for widening opportunity.

It also means that programmes should only be provided by the university best able to teach them. At present many universities attempt to provide a full breadth of education provision (at undergraduate and masters level) even when they do not have the academic base or depth to do this well. Planned consolidation will improve both the student experience and the financial sustainability of programmes.

This could involve staff teaching across networks, so that universities retain disciplines (and the academics can teach to their strengths). Research intensive universities should open their facilities up to researchers from other organisations. Some of the institutions in a network will have an international reputation, others will be high quality local universities. There will need to be give and take; high prestige universities will have to allow students to progress to them, while others will be restricted in what they can do.

This requires a new spirit of cooperation, moving away from the current competitive zero-sum game. It will entail humility, with organisations recognising that they are not always the best places to do everything, nor should they claim to be. There will need to be a new breed of university leader, one that models the behaviours of cooperation and engagement.

How can we do this as a sector? Something similar has operated in California for many years, with University of California institutions offering world-class research and cooperating with California state universities and community colleges. The system was founded so that the university sector, as a whole, is a public good for education, research and supporting industry. This shared mission is at odds with the individual institutional focus in the UK. 

Are all the tensions in the UK higher education system sufficiently strong that the earthquake will happen? Possibly, though positions are deeply entrenched and the senior leadership focused on the success of their own establishments. The danger with earthquakes can be that there is a lot of destruction and noise, but when the dust settles the tectonic plates have moved only a few centimetres. But we should not lose the opportunity at the current crisis provides the build a stronger and more resilient higher education sector for the UK.


  1. Mark Biggs says:

    Interestingly, this has been happening for sometime in a small way the UK in the form of joint research schools in Scotland – EastChem and WestChem are two examples you can find easily via Google, but there are others such as the joint endeavour between Engineering at Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt. The strength of these joint endeavours were demonstrated very clearly in REF 2014. Of course, for much longer there have been federated universities such as London and Wales, although the nature of these have evolved over their relatively long history. There are also HE and FE institutions working in collaboration to address local social mobility challenge. All this may possibly be the deep underground bumping and grinding referred to here, but I do sense that these trends are set to grow further and may very well be part of the norm in the future.

  2. albert wright says:

    “It may be that we need to weaken the power of institutions and work more at a regional level.”

    This strategy might work well but will be hard to bring about given the “independence” of individual institutions and the egos of some of their leaders.

    To avoid wasting money and resources we definitely need more specialisation, centres of excellence, cooperation and sharing.

    This issue exists in almost all public sector institutions and at many levels. It covers the whole of education, health, local government, Job Centre Plus and policing.

    The challenge is creating the most appropriate balance geographically, organisationally, by sector and subject.

  3. Well, survival of the HE sector at the moment is the ultimate elephant in the room!

    An alpha-centrist view of the world may look upon the reality of the above article as either a “survival of the fittest”, or “game to win at all costs”. But that belies the (un)intended consequences of misreading and misinterpreting how the sector is shifting yet again. Humans are not that good at subtle cues – whether based upon our environment or behaviours. Just look at the blunt left/right brain response we have developed over centuries culminating in our autonomic fight-or-flight response.

    We therefore need to be careful about this particular earthquake and “hold fast” to coin a nautical term.

    Looking towards the US, it is indeed true that the US community college system (the AACC) has proved it can work as a loose federation (or should that be confederation?) of institutions with a shared purpose. Accreditation bodies worldwide offer the same “protection” of sorts as well – either voluntarily or as part of membership.

    But we have to be careful not to label such an approach as protectionism – in fact, what Andrew is probably highlighting is probably more akin to conservation instead (of the HE system).

    In our current Anthropocene moment it is therefore not unusual to view the HE sector through these existential lenses.

    But I can still hear the echoes of the ‘shared services’ mantra within the rumbling of this earthquake as well. This idea was ubiquitous during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when I was in the consulting world – the notion that radical and disruptive innovation and agility could be obtained by non-red ocean co-opetition (to borrow from Kim and Mauborgne). It did’nt really work out like that though. There was a mis-interpretation across all sorts of sectors, including technology, financial and professional services and the health sector which led to consolidations and M&A activity instead. Best laid plans…

    So there are still many views of how within the HE sector competition and cooperation will and perhaps should coalesce and play out – see also:

    and also

    At the expense of bringing in another metaphor, this “Red Queen effect” of outrunning sectoral challenges is still with us. It depends largely how much we wish to integrate and recognise shared challenges across university affiliation groups – Russell groups will have very different challenges compared to ’94, Millenium and other groupings.

    It’s important for universities to also remember that integration and a shared approach to delivering on student experience, teaching, research and business and community engagement will still have some distinctive elements. Best not to forget our Tennyson here: “Princes and Lords have not the breath of Kings”…

    This debate, raging though it has been beneath the surface (the HE sector as Orpheus in it’s own Underworld no less) is biding its time and will somehow break through.

    But this earthquake will have to break fully through regional, peer-group and institutional boundaries. As others have pointed out, there are successful regional research and other groupings which means that some parts of the sector know how to come together.

    Yet, who will be first to reach out and ask for help during and after the earthquake? How rapidly will additional HE-FE alliances be formed, beyond the few that exist now? How will institutional identity and competitive differentiation be maintained, nationally and internationally, if sector groupings homogenise distinctive elements?

    Even more prosaically, does it even matter?!

    In the great strategic game that is higher education, my only real coda to this are the words of the great film historian Gerald Mast, who wrote, of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal:

    “….the only question about the game is how long it will last and how well we will play it”.

    Your move.

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