Abandon comfort all ye who enter this arena of challenge and renewal

Higher education leaders shouldn't be afraid of moving out of their safe zones and making radical changes, says Dominic Shellard

June 17, 2010

There is something afoot in UK higher education. As Bob Dylan sang in the 1960s: "The times they are a-changin'." The question is, how will we change with them?

As a recently appointed vice-chancellor, everywhere I go I meet people who have come to the realisation that the next few months will be ones of great fluidity and uncertainty. Ahead of the emergency Budget on 22 June, business secretary Vince Cable and universities and science minister David Willetts have given the sector written warning about doing more with less. The outcome depends on whether the idea paralyses us with fear or challenges us to evolve new ways of thinking.

In the face of this rapid change, we need to grab on to some sector-wide anchors. Higher education as a whole is contributing to the national economic recovery by educating excellent graduates through first-rate teaching, undertaking relevant and much-sought-after research and applied activity, and being business-engaged. Most universities adhere to all of this, and all to some.

Yet what we need in the new world order is a fresh and unified approach. Old ways of thinking are out. Antagonisms between special interest groups such as the Russell Group and Million+ seem increasingly outdated and irrelevant. We need to proudly proclaim the necessity of our individual, as well as our collective, university missions.

UK higher education has so many reasons to be proud, not least because it is a worldwide brand of quality. But at home, that clarity can be obscured.

Introspective navel-gazing by the mission groups at best confuses students, parents, university staff, the coalition government, the media, business organisations, and national and international partners; at worst, it repels them.

It is as though the most debilitating aspects of the class system have been set in aspic in the academy, as we often appear to outsiders to replicate snobbery and distinctions that are absurd in any other cultural setting.

For this reason, I applaud Keith Burnett's recent article calling for an end to divisions within the sector ("Unified theory: the academy, united, can never be defeated", 3 June). His appeal for unity represents a fresh way of thinking about how we work and interact with the wider world, something that I believe is long overdue.

Discussions I have had with other vice-chancellors indicate that there is an increasing desire for a change of attitude right across the sector.

But I would go further. It is not only our internal walls that need to be breached: our perimeter boundaries must be far more permeable than at present.

This new approach has become increasingly clear to me over recent years with regard to work that I have undertaken with the British Library and British theatre.

The Theatre Archive Project, which I lead with Jamie Andrews, head of modern literary manuscripts at the British Library, is a genuine collaboration across sector boundaries, embracing interviews, texts, scripts and collections from little-known practitioners as well as some of the greatest names of British theatre - Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson and Michel Saint-Denis.

The British Library embraced this blurring of theatre, academia and the arts to study a golden period of British theatre (1945-68) and to acknowledge not only the rich cultural impact of that "golden generation", but also the profound economic importance of cultural industries to UK plc.

A continuity of approach has now seen the project move under the stewardship of my new English and drama colleagues at De Montfort University, with the promise of continued synergies with a wide range of universities.

The days of the university as citadel are numbered. We urgently need to lower the drawbridge and more openly engage in the wider marketplace of ideas. We need to be out there, confident of our contribution and our heritage, and unafraid of a new paradigm.

The lesson of the 1980s is that sectors that turn in on themselves become vulnerable. A new consensus is needed between the mission groups, as well as - and this is particularly important to me - management and the unions. We should not wait for politicians to force us into action. We should define our own ambitions and embrace the future ourselves.

In the next decade, what matters is not the university motto, shield or history, but the thinking, attitude and creativity. We need the confidence to move beyond our comfort zones into new arenas, new areas of collaboration, new ways of working and thinking. To do so may threaten the old certainties about our identity, but it could also herald a renaissance for the perception of the academy in society.

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