Reconnecting universities to their public purposes

By Martin Vogel


This is the final post in our series looking at how our counter-consultancy approach meets the needs of higher education institutions. Here we explore how interdisciplinarity and external collaboration can revitalise the public value of universities.

Interdisciplinarity and external partnerships provide a foundation for universities to renew their public value. This is because they grow out of the genuine and distinct strengths of a particular institution and point to how it can make a unique contribution to addressing society’s challenges. But this contribution can be realised only if there is clarity about the institution’s public purposes: the generic ones it shares with other higher education establishments and the distinct one that arise out of its own particular circumstances.

Often people find it hard to describe their public purposes – particularly, and counter-intuitively, if they work in organisations with explicit public service aims. They take it as self-evident that the output of their work is valuable when what matters are the outcomes. We encountered this when we were employed in the BBC, where staff would regard journalism or drama production as an intrinsic good, an end in itself, but where the institution was challenged to account for the outcomes that were generated by public investment in these outputs.

In the higher education sector, modern universities can find it easy to describe their public value – often expressed in terms of a long-history of extending access to education. Research-intensive universities, on the other hand, cushioned by rosy reputations, can easily slip out of the discipline of ensuring that the value they provide is commensurate with their potential. There’s no doubt that academics can talk a good game about their public purposes. But, as Edward Byrne, principal of King’s College London has argued, the value they create beyond education and research is hard to pin down:

“While many universities acknowledge that they have a third mission beyond teaching and research – to engage with the world in ways that generate social and economic value – it is not as fiercely embraced and deeply embedded in their day-to-day activities as it could be.”

There’s a need both for a more robust narrative that brings to life the specific purposes of a given institution, and some alignment of collective behaviours behind this narrative so that there’s some confidence that intended outcomes will be delivered. Often, this will be a matter of teasing out more explicitly the relationship between individual academics’ research interests and the contribution of the institution as a whole to the public realm – highlighting both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of academic research.

In our work in universities, we find the best way to approach these questions is through processes of enquiry and dialogue. Through enquiry, usually one-to-one conversations with people both inside and outside the institution, we establish a baseline of understanding about the organisation in all its specificity – but, more importantly, reveal the organisation to itself. We ask those questions that are hard to answer, about public purposes and outcomes, and generally get a sense of “how things are done around here”, the strengths and the weaknesses. This provides a hypothesis of public value (potential and actual) that serves as a foundation for dialogue, in which we facilitate conversations that bring together people of diverse perspectives to explore our findings and brainstorm ways of building on what the university has to offer.

Our premise is that each university has its own unique genius which contributes to it creating unique public value. So we have to approach it on its own terms, not attempting to cram its reality into any preconceived categories that we might hold. This is an important characteristic of the counter-consultancy approach. We are looking for internally-generated strategies, that draw on the understanding of the institution held by those who enact it every day, but that are tested by an attitude of scepticism and critique that we bring from the external environment.

One of the lenses that we use is the public value framework that we have adapted from our work in the BBC for use in higher education. This might sound like a contradiction of what I have just said about eschewing preconceived categories. But it’s not about getting an organisation to conform to our methodology. It’s a means to engage people in conversation about what the organisation exists to do. This can be a useful tool for teasing out the ambition that people hold, either explicitly or implicitly, and for creating a shared understanding about where the organisation is and what people need to be doing to take it in its desired direction.

This work extends beyond simply establishing a narrative. It creates a basis for understanding the activities that currently support the outcomes the organisation aspires to deliver and what needs to be different in order that corporate behaviour is aligned with the purposes. In designing strategies for effecting outcomes, we work from a conviction, based on experience, that there is no off-the-shelf model that will do. This is because each institution is complex in its own way. We favour a bespoke approach which emerges from eliciting the inherent wisdom of those who work in the institution. There is a careful balance to be struck between respecting this inherent wisdom and challenging it when it becomes too collusive with aspects of the current reality that get in the way.

We work with leaders in groups and one-to-one to identify plausible strategies for moving forward – strategies which encompass identifiable action steps towards intended outcomes and relationship-building to engage colleagues and others who need to be on side. While it’s important to work through the formal institution to gain necessary authority, it’s important not to get bogged down in it. People often under-estimate what they can achieve exercising their existing authority and informal influence. Exploiting these can create momentum well before any additional formal authorities are required. Mobilising networks of support around strategies that grow out of the institution’s inherent wisdom also makes it more likely that developments will secure widespread support.

Our methodology is aimed not just at fostering relevant strategies but addressing the hard stuff of bringing them to life. Rooting them in the expertise of those who at, all levels, who will be charged with taking them forward is a much deeper exercise than the glib consultations which institutions sometimes undertake for form’s sake to foster buy-in. Yes, our approach elicits emotional buy-in, but it also elicits strategies that are wholly aligned with what the university is all about and capable of delivering. And by linking them to the university’s public purposes, the counter-consultancy approach helps the institution deliver more tangible value to society and to reconnect with the communities in which they are located. That charts a route back from the commodification of higher education and towards the long-term sustainability of HE institutions.

Other posts in this series:

Image courtesy All is Possible.