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Differences aside, why are we all so similar? By Natalie Day, Johnny Rich & Chris Husbands

  • 23 January 2023
  • By Natalie Day, Johnny Rich and Chris Husbands

This HEPI blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Natalie Day, Johnny Rich and Professor Sir Chris Husbands.

Writing for HEPI in December, Mary Curnock Cook and Malcolm Grant argued that the ways in which the Office for Students applies QAA methodology to new entrants to HE prevents the emergence of different forms of higher education provision. As a result, the vision of a more diverse higher education system which lay at the heart of Jo Johnson’s Higher Education and Research Act (2017) was not materialising. A different approach to assessing new providers, they argued, might unlock more. 

We agree with Mary and Malcolm that the assessment of new entrants to higher education is frequently too risk averse. But we argue that this is not the principal impediment to a more diverse and innovative sector. The roots of the problem are deeper and far harder to dig out. While the regulatory approach is fraught with challenge and needs reform, the sector has some self-reflection of its own to do this space.

We have been here before

There is history here: the United Kingdom has tried time and again to bring innovation into higher education, but has never really succeeded – or, more accurately, it has repeatedly launched innovations only to watch them drift back towards the norm. 

  • In the later 1950s, Colleges of Advanced Technology were intended to introduce new sorts of higher education, but institutions such as Bath, Bradford and Loughborough developed into somewhat conventional, albeit high-quality, universities.
  • The post-Robbins ‘plate-glass’ universities such as Sussex, York and East Anglia began with ambitious plans to ‘re-draw the map of learning’ with inter-disciplinary schools but have resorted to fairly conventional academic structures.
  • Local authorities established Colleges of Higher Education which were intended to meet local demand from, largely, non-traditional students but have now gravitated towards more conventional models, such as the universities of Bournemouth and Edge Hill.
  • Anthony Crosland’s polytechnics offered a different vision of a technological future for higher education, but after the closing of the binary divide in 1992, many of those have lost their distinctiveness whilst building excellent reputations. 

Becoming more similar

What has pushed this long-term drift to homogeneity is something other than start-up experiences.  And it’s not too difficult to explain: since higher education institutions operate under the same funding arrangements, evaluation measures for teaching and research and consequent key performance indicators, it’s no real surprise that they end up looking more similar to each other than different. All these measures then shape the sector league tables which cast a long shadow and whose criteria appear to start from the premise that if a handful of traditional universities are not automatically at the top, then it must be the criteria that are wrong rather than that a single concept of ‘good’ cannot be applied without a dampening effect on diversity. 

League tables are not simply fodder for media headlines and adornments to institutional websites. They have real world impacts. Some funding agencies internationally use league table performance as a basis for allocating resources and scholarships. They inform system changes and encourage gaming within institutions, even if rigorously denied. Our own government uses them to award student visas

These assumptions can be found in some of the most recent adjustments to the accountability system.  Students are diverse; the purposes of higher education are diverse; regions and disciplines are diverse. A single solution to such diversity can never be as effective as a richer range of responses. Nature evolves diverse strategies in the face of the various challenges of different environments. That is what drives optimal survival – organisms perfectly suited to their niche. If our higher education sector does not do the same, then all the B3 conditions in the world will not save it from becoming a dinosaur, fossilised in the same old approaches, sliding in to mediocrity because it does ‘well enough’ and never questions whether it might do better.

While standard measures like these, often ill-used and all derived from assumptions about participation and structures that persist, we will more or less end up where we are, not because universities have been set up to be similar, but because the pressures and assumptions of accountability, performance and assessment drive them to be like each other.  

The idea of a university

But the problem may be deeper still: a product of cultural, rather than management, assumptions. We too often assume that the sole model of high-quality higher education is the one established as a mid-twentieth century interpretation of a medieval model. That ideal is of a full-time residential model, focused on 18-year-olds and built around a relatively rigid disciplinary (‘departmental’) scaffold which structures knowledge, assessment and outcomes. 

This idea of ‘the university’ as a cultural form is deeply embedded, though it’s arguably weaker in the United States. Notwithstanding the cultural and economic power of the Ivy League and major land grant universities, there is much greater diversity of institutional mission and form there – David Labaree called it A Perfect Mess in his account of the history of US higher education. It may be that scale, and relatively early massification of participation is one of the explanations for the divergence of the United States – and it does seem to be an outlier. But this almost certainly means that if we collectively think that the measure of success of our higher education system is how effectively we can replicate the performance of our four or five top performing universities, we won’t really prize innovation.

Howard Newby once cynically referred to the ‘English genius for turning diversity into hierarchy’. As long as we have a narrow notion of what good looks like, we will always tend to develop systems that deliberately or by default drive institutions towards that supposed ideal.  As long as metrics test performance against that ideal and penalise failure – or even a different kind of success – then experimentation, innovation and distinctiveness will be risks too far. As long as university marketing campaigns treat league tables as credible endorsements and school headteachers feel the need to boast about the number of their sixth-formers bound for the Russell Group, then all institutions will feel the imperative to imitate a well-established model.

The deep blue sea

A limited perspective on what high quality looks like reinforces homogeneity at almost every stage. The diversity that does exist in the sector has become each institution’s shameful secret about how it does not measure up. Universities exist for many different purposes and those purposes will be best served when we can celebrate and enhance distinctive ways to serve them. 

In a system in which private returns from higher education have increasingly crowded out the concept of the public good, this narrow conceit of what a university should look like makes a creative discussion about the social value of higher education more difficult. 

There’s a strand of thinking in strategic marketing which distinguishes between ‘blue ocean’ and ‘red ocean’ strategies. In ‘blue ocean’ strategies companies fight for small competitive advantage in established markets; in ‘red ocean’ strategies they strike out to redefine their purpose in radical ways. In this model, ‘niche marketing’ ensures all interests are met, even those of outliers. 

The English higher education system is locked into its blue ocean by its funding, accountability framework, performance indicators and cultural conditioning. We are all the poorer for it. It will take determined and sustained change to embrace diversity and innovation. It’s time for higher education to pursue more red, rather than blue oceans.

HEPI has separately published a response from Rob Stroud of the QAA to the original blog by Mary Curnock Cook and Malcolm Grant.


  1. Indeed so. As the last final paragraph states, some BIG THINGS need to change. So who needs to do what, when? And who might be willing to take the risk, especially remembering that

    “We must bear in mind, then, that there is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things in any state. For the innovator has for enemies all those who derived advantages from the old order of things, whilst those who expect to be benefited by the new institutions will be but lukewarm defenders. This indifference arises in part from fear of their adversaries who were favoured by the existing laws, and partly from the incredulity of men who have no faith in anything new that is not the result of well-established experience. Hence it is that, whenever the opponents of the new order of things have the opportunity to attack it, they will do it with the zeal of partisans, whilst the others defend it but feebly, so that it is dangerous to rely upon the latter.”

    Are those words as true today as they were when they were written by Machiavelli around 1513?

  2. Colin McCaig says:

    Indeed. I sometimes think we are so far down the marketisation rabbit hole we can’t find a way back out. The market is predicated on the notion of the level playing field (much trumpeted in the HERA 2017), but putting a level playing field over a pre-existing prestige hierarchy is akin to laying a table cloth over the Himalayas and being surprised when the tea-cups start sliding down the mountain

  3. Arti Kumar says:

    I cannot agree more. Time for change. The question is how the sector can and should collaborate to make it happen.

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