Universities must define which market they are in

By Mark Wakefield

Universities of East London and Oxford

Like it or not (and assuredly, many don’t) universities exist in an increasingly marketised environment. Current, proposed changes to the sector bring all this in to sharp focus. The new regulatory regime set out in the current Higher Education and Research Bill is particularly significant here. The introduction of the TEF means that for the first time universities will be assessed on the quality of their teaching, as well as that of their research. This is going to put some universities in the Russell Group in particular in a very challenging position. Such has been the status accorded to research over teaching (something actively encouraged by government policy up until now) that many universities have cross-subsidised their research from the fees they earn from teaching.

For how much longer can that go on, or to the extent that it has? Faced with not being rated “Gold” for teaching and losing the fees that go with it, will some universities be able to afford to cross-subsidise? And if not, what happens to their research rankings? What’s more, universities are set to face yet more competition for students. Already some continental universities (Maastricht is a good example) are actively courting the British market. Further down the line the challenger institutions envisaged in the current Higher Education Bill could present a real competitive threat – particularly, if as seems likely, they innovate in terms of the flexibility they offer students. Continue reading “Universities must define which market they are in”

A university’s strategy won’t succeed if it doesn’t excite staff

By Mark Wakefield

John Henry Newman defined an exciting purpose for universities.

We recently ran a workshop with a university as part of some work we are doing with it on its strategy. In one exercise, we asked those present to reflect on what it was that they found exciting about it. The results were illuminating and we were hopeful that it would enable the team to engage their colleagues more effectively in the merits of what they were proposing. However, I was surprised when one member of the team commented that the word “exciting” was an odd one to use in relation to a strategy. He’d never heard it so used before. To which my reply was “what’s the point of a strategy that isn’t exciting?” The term “strategy” is perhaps one of the most over-used and abused words in organisations both public and private. To some it’s a kind of virility symbol, to others it reeks of business school managerialism. At its most basic, a strategy is (or should be) a carefully considered, evidence-based plan for allocating an organisation’s resources in the most effective way possible to secure a desired end. Continue reading “A university’s strategy won’t succeed if it doesn’t excite staff”

England, my England: we need to determine what it is before we can move on from Brexit

By Mark Wakefield

Orwell would have understood the state of Brexit England

I counted myself lucky to be away on holiday and out of the country during the week after the referendum result. The atmosphere was clearly pretty febrile as I watched events unfold from afar. As someone who voted Remain, albeit with serious misgivings, I was prey to a constantly shifting range of emotions, and still am to a degree. I was surprised however, to find an old friend of mine who works for a Labour frontbench MP texting me to say how ashamed she was of England. This set a whole new train of thought going for me. Whatever else I felt about the result, I did not feel any shame whatever about how England – as opposed to London – had voted. I couldn’t for a moment feel any sense of shame that the poor and disadvantaged who have suffered most from the financial crash in 2008 had vented their spleen on the establishment, even though I believe such venting to be misdirected. But the poor and disadvantaged don’t make up 52 per cent of the population or anything like it. While I am prepared to believe there was a degree of xenophobia at work in the vote to leave, I believe it far more likely that there was a grudging resentment – which I share – at the high-handedness of the EU (particularly in the Commission) and the woeful lack of any democratic accountability. Continue reading “England, my England: we need to determine what it is before we can move on from Brexit”

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. Continue reading “Universally challenged: higher education in the 21st Century”

In search of a good death

By Mark Wakefield

Ronnie's Funeral
Much to take care of before we reach our funeral.

Book review: Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.

I’ve just finished reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. I should declare an interest here, facing as I do my 60th birthday this year and having a close relative undergoing treatment for cancer. It is a sobering, important book that is shocking in its critique of the medical profession’s approach to death, made all the more powerful by the author being Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

Gawande’s chief concern is with the “medicalisation” of death, a process that identifies death as the great enemy to be denied at every turn, regardless of the cost to the patient. So prevalent is this attitude that, as Gawande makes clear, it’s the patients who are as desperate to deny the inevitability of death as their doctors.

Continue reading “In search of a good death”

Science in crisis

By Mark Wakefield

Tin oxide
Tin oxide, viewed through an electron microscope. Science needs to overcome the negativity caused by excessively managerialist justifications of its value.

Last week, acting in my role as a priest at St. Mary the Virgin Primrose Hill, I introduced Tom McLeish as a guest speaker at a fund raising event. Tom is a polymer Physicist and Pro-Vice Chancellor for research at Durham University. He is also a Lay Reader in the Church of England and has just published a book entitled Faith and Wisdom in Science. Demonstrating an impressive breadth of knowledge, he makes a strong case for both science and theology being disciplines that share, if not the same methods, then at least a fascination with questions concerning the physical world, its structures and processes. The result is a genuinely fresh and positive contribution to the mostly (by now) tedious and sterile science/religion debate.

Beyond this however, one of the things that fascinated me most about Tom’s book was its argument that science is facing a crisis of both meaning and purpose. As he puts it:

“There is a narrative vacuum where the story of science in human relationship with nature needs to be told.”

As an arts graduate, I’m well aware of how the humanities have long been afflicted by the loss of “metanarrative” so celebrated by “post-modern” theorists and which – in my view at least – leads to artistic output that is often as pointless as it is self-referential. That there is such a crisis in science had never occurred to me, which makes me realise how much I’d fallen (unconsciously) for the lazy assumption that science is somehow, of its essence, a “value-free” activity, as if any such activity is ever possible.

Continue reading “Science in crisis”

The sea change

By Mark Wakefield

The Winter of Discontent.
The Winter of Discontent in 1979 precipitated the end of the social democratic consensus. Is the epoch of neoliberalism that it ushered in facing its own sea change?

We’ve been in business for just over three years now and in all that time we have consistently championed the idea of socially responsible business. When we started we were sure we were onto a winner. Our credentials in understanding and communicating the idea of social value opened doors. But we quickly realised that, much as people liked to talk, no one was much interested in spending money on this. As in the world of business, so in the world of politics. All the party leaders have talked about the need for a more socially responsible, less predatory capitalism but so far nothing has come of it. We are still, for instance, five years away from the Vickers report on banking regulation being fully implemented, and there are many who argue that it goes nowhere near far enough. Meanwhile, executive pay continues to rocket while the great majority see their incomes lagging inflation.

Tempted as I often am to throw up my hands up in despair, something happened just recently that encouraged me to think that change is on the way, though it will take time to be fully realised. When I’m not working for Vogel Wakefield, I have an unpaid role as a priest at St. Mary the Virgin Primrose Hill. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon on the subject of money by way of launching a money season at the church. Inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s campaign on payday loans and in conjunction with the Centre for Theology and Community, our aim in the money season has been to support individuals in reflecting on the ethics of making and spending money, and to encourage the whole church to identify local needs that it can help address.

Continue reading “The sea change”

Scotland’s independence debate: where’s the leadership?

By Mark Wakefield


“[It] makes America’s historic Declaration of Independence look like a post-it note.” So wrote Joan Mc Alpine, Scottish National MSP for South Scotland in the Daily Record of last week’s Scottish Government white paper on independence. It says something for the debased nature of our public discourse that she did so without apparent irony. The Times, in its leader column, commended the Scottish Government for engaging with the future on “a more terrestrial basis”(£).

Continue reading “Scotland’s independence debate: where’s the leadership?”

Abraham Lincoln: a leader inspired by literature

By Mark Wakefield

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln – profound moral purpose, but no saint.

I’ve just recently returned from holidaying in the United States on the coast of Maine. While there I happened to meet Professor Fred Kaplan, who is a distinguished author of literary biographies. His most recent, Lincoln, the Biography of a Writer, is a book that I found fascinating, not least for its insights on leadership. In Lincoln’s case – and many in the US believe him to have been the greatest ever President – there can be no doubt that his love of literature played a pivotal role in shaping and sustaining him as a leader. This seems to me a point worth pondering given that we now live in a culture that values the explicit and measurable over the implicit and inherently unmeasurable.

Continue reading “Abraham Lincoln: a leader inspired by literature”

It’s happiness, Stupid!

By Mark Wakefield


As a postscript to Martin Vogel’s blogpost here last week about our shock at realising that we weren’t properly communicating to our clients the strength of our commitment to what we do, here’s a reflection on what led to this epiphany. I think this was a long time coming but, for me at least, our recent meeting with the very impressive but self-effacing Andy Street, CEO of John Lewis, had a lot to do with it. When preparing for the meeting I was puzzled to find that the John Lewis Partnership defines its chief purpose as “the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.”

Continue reading “It’s happiness, Stupid!”