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Between tradition and regulation: is there space for entrepreneurial behaviour in higher education?

  • 6 October 2022
  • By Ian Dunn

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Ian Dunn, Provost of Coventry University. It is the third in our series of blogs on leadership in partnership with the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE).

There are very good reasons for the traditions that have been built into higher education. Working in higher education, we often hold true to these traditions. The traditions are pervasive; for example, many institutions have mortar boards and a mace bearer at graduation ceremonies. In many ways, traditions reach into how we operate and administer our institutions. It is true, however, that not many of us remember why they are there, and this can sometimes constrain our thinking. Why, for example, do we persist in using the honours degree classification? A system that may have had great value and meaning when a tiny fraction of the population enrolled in higher education, but this is clearly not the reality today.

The sector now has a strong regulator. Given the scale of the higher education business, many would argue that this is a good, even an essential, thing, to manage the excesses and to protect the interests of students. 

My hypothesis is that in the current state of the sector, it is quite possible to feel squeezed and to take the middle road, twisting between tradition and regulation. 

However, we are facing real challenges and must ask: is the middle road the right road? Funding for UK undergraduates has fallen in real terms to levels that cannot sustain the traditional infrastructure. Funding for research, a core element of the full-service university, is increasingly determined according to what it can deliver now and less about where it may lead. It is therefore clear that more of the same is not a long-term option. Change is required. Change is essential.

To lead change with purpose and direction is always a challenge. Leading change in an inherently traditional environment and one in which there is real concern that the regulator may not be supportive, is often a painful experience and needs support and creativity.

It is much more comfortable knowing that I can do what is asked of me rather than believing that I may be able to make a change. This is why we need to support leaders to understand how to be entrepreneurial, confident, manage change and to encourage others to follow them on the journey.

What should we, and what can we do? We must recognise the traditions of our sector and our institutions in order to build a narrative as to why the old positions are no longer tenable. We must urge the regulator to continue to be robust in defending students but at the same time to encourage the taking of calculated risk when it comes with a clear rationale in the support of better experiences. We need to train our leaders to manage and cope with change and we need as many of them as possible to step forward.

How can we train leaders to be more entrepreneurial and open to change? We must provide them with the confidence to be creative and innovative in the way they work, and give them the tools and frameworks that help them to manage change and expose the sector to inspirational leaders (both in higher education and outside of it) so they realise what can be possible.

The series so far:

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