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.