Universally challenged: higher education in the 21st Century

By Mark Wakefield


It’s higher education week on the Vogel Wakefield blog. We’re looking at what we’ve learned from working in the sector and what our counter-consultancy approach has to offer universities and those who work in them. In this first post in the series, we take an overview of the challenges facing higher education institutions.

It’s now almost five years since we set up shop. From the outset we identified higher education as the sector we most wanted to work in, alongside that of the media from whence we hail. We are now fortunate enough to count some major universities as clients but our learning about higher education goes way beyond them to the many people from a very wide range of institutions who have been generous with their time in helping us gain an understanding of their sector. Add to this all the reading and reflection we’ve done and we feel that now is a good time to share our thoughts on what we’ve found out, and where universities might most usefully focus their efforts in addressing the challenges they all face. This post sets out our views in broad terms while following ones in the series will go into some of our key themes in more detail.

Traditional, research intensive universities have experienced profound change in recent years and continue to do so Looking back over the past two decades, there’s been a progressive switch in the emphasis of government funding away from teaching towards research, culminating in the hike in tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 in 2009. At the same time, government has required increasing quantities of evidence as to the “impact” of research funding, including in the arts and humanities. Leaving aside the controversy over the effectiveness and burden of this exercise, this rise in “instrumentalism” has led to profound disquiet within many institutions as it is seen as questioning the core purpose of a university – the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

As if that weren’t enough, the rise in tuition fees is now exerting pressure in the opposite direction, as students and their parents demand more “contact time” for the money they now have to pay. And now the government seems intent on introducing a Teaching Excellence Framework to add to the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The pressure towards greater “instrumentalism” in research is mirrored in teaching, with many students raised in a “consumerist” milieu now regarding their university education in “contractual” terms – a qualification (at an appropriate level) in return for payment, rather than personal enrichment through learning. Then there’s globalisation. British higher education is well-placed to take advantage of this given its generally high reputation (second only to the US) and the fact that English is increasingly a global lingua franca. But what should being a global player mean? While all seek to benefit from attracting high-paying foreign students to come and study here, some have opened up campuses abroad, while others have entered into partnerships with other institutions.

The route to success in global markets is still far from clear. Finally, like all institutions, universities must find ways of responding to the network society which, in their case, threatens to dissolve existing subject demarcations and demands a new, more flexible and more connected approach to the pursuit of knowledge. The network society has introduced learning via MOOCs. These could have a profound impact over the long term. As access to top academics becomes global, the rationale for learning locally risks being undermined.

Universities are not well adapted so far to this new world

Universities are now required to be entrepreneurial (seeking out new markets for their “product”), managerial (responding to external testing and benchmarking) and “customer-focused” (competing for research money and students). All this requires particular skills in senior officers and a common recognition of their importance. In reality, in our experience, universities remain largely internally focused, often run as federations of faculties or schools within which academics are narrowly focused on their particular disciplines.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the current demand for greater interdisciplinarity. In crude terms this is where the big research money is, although for some institutions greater interdisciplinarity will be key to their curriculum offer as well. Either way, the challenge to the way that universities are currently run and structured could not be more profound. After all, interdisciplinarity (or cross-disciplinarity or post-disciplinarity, as you will) requires academics to identify those in other disciplines who are struggling with similar problems, albeit from very different perspectives, and to work together in finding solutions.

Most universities are setting up major research themes to drive this kind of thinking, but the question remains as to how you get academics who are working within existing silos to make the leap to a different kind of working. Interdisciplinarity carries a further challenge in that it frequently requires partnering with external institutions. This is because research funding is increasingly closely related to impact beyond the academic community. Because external partners tend not to view the world in terms of academic disciplines, the problems and insights they bring are inherently interdisciplinary and require just such an approach. While there is a challenge for universities in thinking in an externally-focussed way (i.e. seeking to understand the needs of potential partners and how the institution’s research capabilities can be harnessed to address them), this is as nothing compared to getting academics actively and enthusiastically involved in this kind of enterprise.

What so often seems to be lacking in universities is any real sense of shared corporate purpose beyond the core requirement to push the boundaries of knowledge through research and to share it through teaching. While those core purposes endure, the context within which they are pursued has changed out of all recognition. By and large, we get little sense of the academic community positively and creatively engaging with that change, what it means for them, and how it can be turned to their advantage. Yet where they do so and begin feeling their way to new ways of working, there is a palpable sense of excitement at the creative opportunities opened up.

A more networked approach to leadership is required

In our view, nothing can happen without a shared agreement about the challenges facing an institution and how best to go about addressing them. It’s a key requirement of leaders that they acquaint their organisation with reality in setting out their vision, and vice-chancellors need to do this in a way that opens up genuine discussion and encourages creative contribution across the whole staff body. If classic faculty/school structures are part of the problem, simply abolishing them is out of the question. Vice-chancellors need to think about what other, intermediate structures they can create to help drive the kind of change they want to see. Given how hierarchical and silo-based university structures tend to be, simply creating competing power structures is likely to create yet more problems. Rather than rely on the classic command and control model, which is likely to be frustrated by vested interests within the silos, vice-chancellors need to leverage support for their vision and agenda through a networked approach, which draws on the power of informal networks. This is more likely to bear fruit.

Finally, what can universities do to stem the tide of instrumentalism that concerns so many in the academic community? To some extent, it has to be expected and accepted. It is surely reasonable that taxpayers should see some return for their investment and a degree of accountability is, to that extent, overdue. That said, there are important questions to be raised about how far the bean counting has gone, and universities – not to mention our wider society – would be much the poorer if there was no, respected role for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. There are, of course, good instrumental arguments for precisely this approach – consider the applications of quantum mechanics that could not possibly have been dreamed of by its pioneers. The point remains however, that politicians of all parties are hooked on instrumentalism and this is where universities need to get much more effective at getting their voice heard at Westminster and Whitehall, not least in making the civilising case for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

In the next post, we’ll begin to look at some of the practical challenges of addressing these issues.

Other posts in this series:

Image courtesy Francisco Osorio.