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Universities are not what they used to be. And thank goodness for that

  • 11 January 2024
  • By Amanda Broderick
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Professor Amanda J. Broderick, Vice-Chancellor & President at the University of East London.

The date is 2018. The balancing influence of HEFCE’s cooperating bodies has been broken up and institutions are registering to the new, sole regulator of English Higher Education, the Office for Students. Pre-Graduate Outcome Survey, pre-B3 conditions, pre-Covid, pre-ChatGPT4, we’re still in the EU, annual gross domestic product is 1.4% (the lowest it had been in six years), inflation averaged 2% and unemployment 4%. A Minister for Universities and Science was in post (and for more than a week), we lost the great mind and inspiration of Professor Stephen Hawking at the age of 76, and Prince Harry got married. 

At the University of East London (UEL), I became the fourth Vice-Chancellor in a 12 month period, taking up the leadership of a challenged institution: multi-year unplanned deficits, twice-broken banking covenants, halved student numbers over a decade, enhanced monitoring on every Office for Students (OfS) condition, an unhealthy Board, an inward-looking culture and most critically some of the worst graduate outcomes despite the importance of the institution’s efforts to the communities it served. 

Context matters. Whilst some take up the opportunity of leadership to finally pursue their professional interests, having the ability to understand and adapt leadership to the situation, to read the signs of the times, to predict emerging trends and capitalise on them agilely ahead of others is one of the most powerful skills of successful leadership. This is also an integral skill of servant leadership: having at the forefront the communities one serves, putting their needs first, challenging oneself and others to walk in their shoes can often drive effective innovation, turning the most critical, substantive challenge into opportunity. 

UEL has always been one of the most socially inclusive UK universities, since its beginnings 125 years ago as the West Ham Technical Institute in 1898. Throughout its history, from the second industrial revolution through to now the fourth and into the fifth, parts of wider society have been excluded from economic development or left behind. Talent can be found equally across society, yet structural barriers mean opportunity is still not and as such, the first leadership priority (aligned with achieving financial sustainability), was to take a radically different approach to working with industry and employer partners, challenging old-fashioned proxies of talent and unlocking innovation in the identification and showcasing of the value of diversity.

We re-wrote the entire curriculum in 2018, underpinned by insights from industry. From the ‘professional fitness and mental wealth’ provision for every student at every level of a UEL degree, through to the Diversity of Thought Programme, Career Zones and Talent Hacks, we built cultural capital innovatively and demonstrated the business value as well as the moral value to increasing the diversity of the talent pipeline. Having courage, unlocking innovation and being bold for the communities we serve has led to:

  • An 830% increase in active employer partners over the last 5 years with thousands of new graduate opportunities. In the last three years, over 500 graduates have secured graduate employment with companies in the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers 2023. UEL is also now working directly with 18 of these, including KPMG, IBM, HSBC, Barclays, NHS, Civil Service, Police Now, BT and British Airways;
  • An increased rank from 85th to 6th nationally for number of Graduate Start-ups per annum;
  • A top 10% improvement in B3 Progression; and,
  • In line with demand from the communities we serve, 1 in every 12 Adult nursing students in London are now UEL-educated.

Values matter. Whilst political challenges of the ‘marketisation’ of HE exist, we must recognise and value that over a 10-year period, the contribution of UK higher education to the UK economy has grown by more than 78% to over £130billion p.a. and participation in HE from the most deprived neighbourhoods have also increased by 10% during that decade – with education continuing to provide the greatest opportunity to social mobility.

One’s leadership values affect all actions in the workplace; are the moral compass by which the hard decisions are taken; and ultimately shape the organisation’s ‘world’. At the University of East London, we needed to grow for our financial health, achieving competitive, critical mass – recognising that the number of HEIs per square mile are greater in East London than anywhere else in the world – whilst advancing our values of courage, passion and inclusion and our charitable purpose to address health and economic inequalities wherever they are found, particularly in the London Borough of Newham, the youngest, fastest-growing and most diverse region yet with some of the greatest health inequalities and percentage of children in poverty than anywhere else in Europe.

Rather than a generic strategy launch with a bang followed by the strategic plan quietly gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, in 2018 the UEL 10-year Vision 2028 strategy became a distinctive route-map that informed our new curriculum and portfolio, our professional practice evolution, our brand strategy, our communications, our partnerships, our organisational structure and our values for every member of our university community. It is the lens through which everything is viewed. Through this approach, we:

  • Are now in the top quartile of financially resilient HEIs, having almost doubled in size, with no debt and implementing a successful £350million investment programme. We expect to be the largest modern University in London by 2024. Total UEL impact on the UK economy is £824m annually – for every £1 of income UEL returns £4.24 to the economy.
  • Have grown to a 40,000+ UEL student community with 160 different nationalities represented, partnering with 27 institutions globally and are one of the largest exporters to India across all UK industry sectors. We are 1st in the UK for number of care-experienced undergraduates. We are arguably the most globally socially inclusive university.
  • Have embedded health gain as a precondition of learning gain back in 2018, our whole-institution approach to mental and physical health is demonstrated by being one of the first five institutions recognised with the Mental Health Charter Award.
  • In our estates, have reduced CO2 emissions more than any other modern London university (part of our commitment to reach net zero by 2030) and in our academic practice, we’ve more than halved the degree-awarding gap between Global Ethnic Majority-identifying and white students.

Communication matters. When in a situation of severe, complex and multifaceted challenge, making no apologies for a ‘furious focus’ on what really matters can be key, as can the recognition that culture (and reputation) changes slowly and that ‘confounding expectations’ can have both advantages and disadvantages as one leads through transformation.

At UEL, putting careers first wasn’t a tagline, or a simple increase in service. It was fundamental to everything the University does and the cultural revolution that it necessitated. The careers-first furious focus – reflected in all our communications across external and internal stakeholders – fostered the scaffolding, rationale and increasingly the evidence to evolve perceptions. The cultural change focused on creating, recognising and rewarding an environment of success. Whilst managing poor behaviours is important, focusing management capacity on building and showcasing top performers can be the most efficient way to create organisational success.

Our approach to enhancing lives and enriching futures has led to:

  • An increase in academic outcomes from Bronze (2018) to Silver TEF (2023)
  • Being ranked 1st nationallyfor TEF Completion indicator vs. benchmark (all HEIs)
  • Increasing to 13th nationally in overall graduating students’ positivity (NSS, 2023)
  • Becoming one of the most representative and inclusive staff populations at all levels (with no significant gender or disability pay gaps and halving the ethnicity pay gap).
  • Four years of the sector-leading recognition and reward programme – the UEL Shared Success Award – has generated above inflation average employee pay rises aligned with University performance improvements.

By 2035, more than 88% of new jobs will be at graduate level, requiring nearly double the number of graduates we have today. We expect university graduates to continue to be healthier and live longer lives than the general population as a whole, with the value of the Higher Education sector to UK Plc continuing to grow, becoming even more critical to economic growth and prosperity.

At UEL, our ambition and our connected thinking continues to increase, committed to not only preparing our students for the jobs and opportunities of the future, but also to driving forward that future inclusively and sustainably. Universities are not what they used to be. They have always been engines of innovation and economic development, addressing societal challenges and improving lives. Today, in the continuous next of a 5.0 economy, with the rise of misinformation, climate threat, antibiotic resistance, geopolitical instability and the evolution of generative AI, universities have never been more important for a green, healthy and fair world. Innovation is needed more than ever – but it requires risk-taking and an environment where mistakes are allowed and their lessons quickly learned. Challenging the status quo and withstanding the inevitable criticism takes courage – but it is incumbent on us all to work towards a more sustainable and equitable world. The University of East London is committed to play a leading and even greater role in this. And I am thankful, every day, for that.

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