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Does it feel better to work in a school or a university?

  • 12 April 2023
  • By James Fuller
  • This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by James Fuller, who supports the senior team at Lancaster University having previously worked in secondary school leadership. In this blog, he considers some similarities and differences between the school and higher education sectors and considers himself very lucky to be in HE! The opinions are a personal, not institutional, view. 

Recent weeks here have seen picket lines at the main gate and some localised student activism. Political pressures, economics and the pandemic have created challenges for schools and universities.  New pressures such as cost of living, Brexit, austerity and culture wars have joined the existing, perennial issues. Schools and universities struggle with inaccurate public, media and governmental perspectives. Simple misunderstandings, political motivation and long outdated stereotypes can all shape an unhelpful national discourse about education.  

Despite these pressures, from the point of view of someone who has spent more than two decades in secondary schools, it’s clear that universities and the wonderful, polite calm and thoughtful people who work in them are currently in a far better position as compared to their colleagues in schools.

A few factors contribute to this; universities are independent, are regulated humanely and are powerful bodies in their own right. 

Universities’ independence from direct government control allows them autonomy

Some public comment from ministers and the press seems to misunderstand the independent status of universities. Universities are significantly protected from government interference compared to schools. The Learning and Skills Act (2000) created academy status, pulling more schools into the orbit of the Department for Education. Forced academisation is a threat which hangs over all schools deemed to be poorly performing. Universities, unlike schools, can say no. They can be as creative and imaginative as they wish, there’s no National Curriculum. They are free to offer what they know works for their students. It is hard for government ministers to impose their diktats directly onto universities,  though changes to immigration rules, or international treaties can make a massive difference to student recruitment or research funding for example.  

A comparatively benign regulatory framework for universities  

Universities are highly accountable. The pressures of the REF, TEF and the individual accreditation requirements of government, awarding and governing bodies are varied, considerable and demanding. But it is a different flavour of accountability to schools.  In a university a well-resourced team of staff is on hand to deal with each these varied bodies and regulatory frameworks. Colleagues who are responsible have time, space and support to prepare for the inspectors when they come knocking. Few ‘inspectors’ actually turn up on the doorstep, regulation often requires an electronic submission.  Accreditation tends towards peer-regulation with polite academics turning up to ask interesting and perceptive questions and then making the award, or possibly setting criteria to be met within an agreed time scale. All of these options are infinitely preferable to the unannounced, combative, deficit-based and unavoidable call from Ofsted, an approach which has recently led directly to the suicide of a primary headteacher.  As the Office for Students is becoming more confrontational, Ofsted-style, it may find that some universities will simply refuse to cooperate.  Appointments equivalent to an Ofsted chief inspector with no expertise in teaching would have been quietly and scornfully scuppered in the university sector.  University regulation is far more collaborative, more polite and more constructive. There is, thankfully, no direct equivalent to Ofsted with its unearned power and lack of institutional accountability. Universities would do well to continue to resist this style of regulation. 

League tables 

Relating to accountability, league tables are a shared area of close focus. The esoteric Progress 8 measure can lead parents and ill-advised school governors down rabbit holes of inaccurate performance analysis. Poor league table standing combined with poor Ofsted reports can send schools into a downward spiral of falling rolls, falling funding, and falling reputation. The effect of league tables and the scramble to find uniqueness so beloved by the satire site the University of Bantshire appears to have a similar and significant effect on universities, in particular internationally. It’s very pleasing to see that Lancaster is the 10th wettest university with the second-best wildfowl. The printers are getting the banners ready in time for open days next year. 

Performance management

Individual accountability and demands of performance management as they relate to metrics and league tables are far less onerous on university staff.  In September teachers generally submit to challenging data targets that often make little educational sense and many schools will directly link performance of individual students or classes to meaningful pay increments, or lack thereof. Performance management and pay is far more sensibly managed in universities and it is clear that the various professional associations that represent university staff would not permit such reductiveness to be involved in the performance management of their members,  nor would leaders want to impose this on academic colleagues. There is industrial action at the moment in schools and universities,  feelings are running high but it’s worth noting that most schoolteachers would probably very happily swap teaching load, preparation time, pay, accountability, conditions and pensions with university staff of equivalent seniority. 

The influential regional, national and global standing of universities and their leaders.

Another thing that school leaders would happily swap is influence, scope and scale. Universities operate on a much greater scale and can be extremely important locally as an employer and anchor for innovation, growth, and other economic and intellectual stimuli. Where university leaders go they are listened to and, often lead aspects of policy at national or at least local level. Many university leaders sit on important national bodies related to their areas of expertise and are in frequent communication with politicians, civil servants and movers and shakers in general. This gives an important soft power to universities which is generally wielded sensitively and well and is certainly an important buffer between government and university that state schools do not have.   

The quality of school governance can be extremely poor. It would be stereotypical to say that it mostly features parents with an axe to grind or has-been types reliving their management years but sometimes those crude caricatures are uncomfortably close to reality.   These mostly well-meaning but unqualified governors are able to make huge decisions on behalf of schools and headteachers, out of all proportion to their abilities.  University governance features former senior politicians, businesspeople and experts, all with their own unique connections into the worlds that they often lead.  It means that university governance can be a huge asset to the institutions. 

Universities are not big schools. The one I write from is more like a civic government, but at heart, much of the moral-purpose that drives educators is common to both schools and universities; improving outcomes and life chances for the people for whom we are responsible. As a newcomer it seems to me that Universities are an easier place from which to do this because of the capabilities,  influence, scale and especially the autonomy of the higher education sector.  


  1. Rose Stephenson says:

    A really interesting blog today – thank you James. As a former teacher, it ‘feels’ much more pleasant working in Higher Education, than it did in a school. However, as a former professional services colleague, and now a Director of Policy, I’m not sure it is a fair comparison to my teaching role in a school. Would I say the same with confidence if I were an academic? I’m not sure….

  2. S Fowler says:

    Interesting opinion, thanks James. I fear, though, that you’ve perpetuated the very problem you online at the outset – simple misunderstandings and long outdated stereotypes of school governance also shape an unhelpful national discourse about education. Many school governors are also leaders and experts, including from within the HE sector.

  3. Rachel Hill-Kelly says:

    Interesting article with many points as an HE professional and former primary teacher I recognise but again I’d refute the ideas about school governance. Governors in academies do not have the powers they once had and many MATs for all their shortcomings do offer a lot of training for governors. It also seems odd to me that with all the similarities and possible models for shared challenges on offer that there isn’t more cross-stage collaboration in education.

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