Universities and public value

test card
BBC Test Card image.

Higher education’s status as a not-for-profit public service operating in a globally competitive market is unusual. There are not many comparable institutions – and this can make HE’s travails, as it contemplates regulatory change, seem like a lonely struggle.

But HE is not alone. An analogous institution is the BBC. There are affinities in terms of cultural role, independence and longevity. But the most striking is the exposure to competition while pursuing public purposes. This creates a tendency towards managerialism and instrumentalism that can be counter-productive. To keep this tendency in check, and retain public support, the BBC turned to the concept of public value. Universities are now exploring the same avenue, as they try to regain public connection, revealed by the Brexit vote to be threadbare.

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

john-henry-newman
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.

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Higher education round-up

art and tech

Here’s a round-up of our series on higher education. People were asking us, “What’s it like to work with you?” So we wrote this series to provide an answer. In the posts below, we explore 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:

Image courtesy University of Salford.

Reconnecting universities to their public purposes

obu

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.

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The emergent route to fostering interdisciplinary collaboration in higher education

networking

This is the third in our series looking at how our counter-consultancy approach meets the needs of higher education institutions. Here we explore the complex nature of university cultures and how we use conversation and reflection to mobilise distributed leadership.

Interdisciplinarity can address a university’s need for funds and a distinctive marketing proposition but also the individual academic’s need for compelling research opportunities. If each university has unique research strengths, these can be synthesised into interdisciplinary ventures which pursue approaches to research excellence that can’t be replicated easily elsewhere. This creates compelling reasons for funds, students and academics to gravitate to particular institutions. It counters a view of higher education as a largely undifferentiated, instrumental business with one which construes it as comprising diverse institutions each with intrinsic value and distinctive contributions to make to the world’s knowledge.

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Interdisciplinarity and external partnerships: components of revenue generation and public value in higher education

library

Over recent years, we have developed a focus on supporting academics and managers in universities who are trying to foster greater interdisciplinary working and greater engagement with external partners. This series of blog posts reviews our learning in this area and explores how our counter-consultancy approach is especially suited to resolving challenges that higher education institutions encounter in pursuing interdisciplinary objectives.

Interdisciplinarity and external partnerships are distinct but closely related areas for universities. While disciplines represent communities of practice that transcend the boundaries of any one university, the idea of disciplines also serves as an institutional heuristic that facilitates internal ways of organising. But in their pursuit of research outcomes that deliver tangible value to society, universities are finding that questions that range across disciplinary distinctions are increasingly salient. This is largely driven by the complexity and pace of change of the modern world. Governments and other funders of research are searching for solutions to big global challenges that are best approached through joined-up interdisciplinary enquiries. Funding is increasingly focussed around themes such as demographic change and wellbeing, food security or climate change. External partners too, caught up in this complexity, are bringing research questions that range across disciplinary distinctions.

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Universally challenged: higher education in the 21st Century

Studying

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.

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Trust is not a message, it’s an outcome: the lesson for leaders from a defector from PR

Trust
Trust is an outcome.

In Trust Me, PR is Dead, Robert Phillips has ostensibly written a book on the bankruptcy of public relations. It’s more interesting, though, as an insider’s guide to the bankruptcy of much corporate leadership – and, more importantly, a cogent call to arms for leadership that can inspire trust. I say “call to arms” since this is not a manual for leaders of the kind that sells at airport bookstands. It’s more a citizens’ manifesto – stirring us from neoliberal slumber so that we may realise our distributed leadership and haul conventional corporate leaders into the service of a fairer form of capitalism. It’s a foretaste of how leadership must surely evolve to meet the challenges of our more transparent, networked society and the expectations of the Millennial generation who will soon inherit the workforce.

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Sustaining public service broadcasting worthy of the name

reithFollowing my post earlier this week on the difficulties at the BBC, I have been chastised by a good friend and former colleague for being too harsh on the Corporation. The specific criticism was that my piece offered no evidence that I valued anything in the BBC.

On reflection, the complaint seems justified. As both a consumer and a former employee, I’m happy to record that I find much to cherish in the BBC’s output and modus operandi. Given how besieged staff inside the organisation feel, perhaps I erred in assuming that this was taken as read.  It is because I respect the nobility to which BBC journalism aspires that I am perplexed by its falling from grace.

However, all organisations need critical friends who are prepared to speak difficult truths. What people value in the BBC – or, more precisely, in its purpose of public service broadcasting – will be at risk if it remains sanguine about the existential threat it faces. The purpose of public service broadcasting is not served by trying to equate it with everything the BBC does. Nor by insisting that the activities we value in the BBC need to be undertaken by a single monolithic broadcaster.

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The BBC: judgment suspended

New Broadcasting House, London
New Broadcasting House, London

As a former BBC hand, I wonder whether people inside the BBC appreciate just how out of control it looks to the outside world? The failures at Newsnight over its mistaken (semi-) identification of Lord McAlpine as a paedophile have revealed what should have been unimaginable lapses in basic journalistic protocol. The director-general’s subsequent resignation with a £450,000 pay-off looked like the BBC Trust had lost the plot. And BBC News is running out of seasoned hands as executives keep falling in the line of fire. But the message from the BBC is “steady as she goes.”

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