Sector leaders debate: how can universities weather the storm?

Round table discusses challenges of changing job market and political instability

July 13, 2017
Storm clouds
Source: Rex

The day that the results of the teaching excellence framework were released seemed an apt time to bring a group of UK university leaders together to discuss the pace of change in the higher education world. As headlines were declaring some of the UK’s top universities to be “second-rate”, the focus of a round table organised by Times Higher Education in association with PA Consulting Group was on how university leaders can weather storms such as the changing expectations of students and policymakers, impending Brexit and increased competition between institutions.

How much has changed? Arguably, universities used to enjoy the certainties of a political consensus over the importance of their role, student numbers were capped and research funding was more assured. But Sir Tim O’Shea, principal of the University of Edinburgh, argued that there was never a “stable golden age”. “We’ve seen an awful lot of change, but I can remember bigger shocks than we have now,” he said.

Nevertheless, Sir Tim said that there was “no ambiguity” about the scale of the challenge facing his university from the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. “At Edinburgh, 43 per cent of students come from outside the UK and 35 per cent of staff come from the EU,” he said. “In terms of lobbying, mobility beats everything for us.”

Institutions must also grapple with greater scrutiny into how they operate: the advent of the TEF and the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data on graduate earnings have called into question the privileged position of some universities and their role in preparing students for the workplace.

Nicola Owen, chief administrative officer of Lancaster University, argued that it was important for universities to “step back from all the noise” and stop complaining about what’s being asked of them. “We have not been good as a sector at taking this on board,” she said. “These exercises are both a challenge and an opportunity. We can question, for example, whether some of the structures we have are still appropriate, whether we’re adapting to the global system in which we operate quick enough.”

Karl Leydecker, vice-principal for learning and teaching at the University of Dundee, agreed. “Universities will have to show that they add value in the future,” he said. “The LEO data will ask far-reaching questions about the value of a university education, and why we should invest in universities as a public good.”

One of the crucial roles for universities in coming years will be in adapting their teaching models to prepare students for the future world of work. With the Bank of England’s chief economist suggesting that 80 million US and 15 million UK jobs could be replaced by robots or artificial intelligence, what are universities preparing students for?

“For me, the key challenge will be to get people ready for portfolio careers, to encourage them to become more entrepreneurial,” said Christina Slade, vice-chancellor of Bath Spa University. “It’s a combination of helping people to become resilient through those changes and equipping them with hard skills.”

At University College London, the focus is on immersing students in research-based pedagogy, according to Michael Arthur, the institution’s president and provost. “Students acquire independent learning, critical thinking, teamwork and communication skills if you actively engage them in the research process,” he said.

Professor Leydecker insisted that universities need to become far more interdisciplinary in how they deliver teaching if they are to prepare students for their future careers. “This is about more than people doing different modules,” he said. “It’s medics working with designers, it’s completely rethinking the spaces we have and how we use technology,” he added.

Edinburgh, too, typically requires its fourth-year undergraduate students to work on a team or research project, which will help to prepare them for more collaborative working in the future.

In some institutions, this rethinking of teaching models is beginning to extend beyond universities’ core offer of an undergraduate degree. Many are partnering with employers or local education providers to offer different academic routes, such as degree apprenticeships.

Aston University has its first cohort of degree apprentices graduating this summer, for example. One of the main attractions for students is the chance to earn while they learn rather than racking up thousands of pounds in debt, said Simon Green, Aston’s pro-vice chancellor and executive dean of the School of Languages and Social Sciences. “If you can pass on the costs to your employer, why would you do a degree?” he asked.

Mike Boxall, senior adviser in higher education at PA Consulting, agreed that these routes will gain in importance. “At a crude level, half of the students coming through the system, they’re not having to pay off their loans five years out, and not making average earnings five or 10 years from graduating,” he added. “They’re asking ‘why should I be committing three years of my life when I could be out earning?’”

Universities must also gear up students for a world in which careers are no longer linear. “We’re talking about the lifelong learning agenda and looking at what that really means,” explained Karen Stanton, vice-chancellor of York St John University. “If someone has five careers in their lifetime, how do we cater for that?”

A growing number of institutions offer access to online courses or massive open online courses in subjects as diverse as pop songwriting and advanced surgery. The challenge, according to Julie McLeod, pro vice-chancellor for student experience at Oxford Brookes University, is how to accredit those courses when many participants pursue them for pleasure alone. “The wonder of Moocs is that they engage so many people but they don’t necessarily warrant accreditation. So what’s our role then?” she asked.

Virtual and online courses will play an important role in opening up access to higher education to segments of society that feel they have been ignored by the system, too. “We need to think about the 50 per cent of the population that we don’t admit as students,” said UCL’s Professor Arthur. “Are we creating enough opportunities for those individuals to come to our institutions, such as foundation pathways and alternative qualifications? Those that feel disenfranchised will be a lot more trusting of us if we bring more of their children through university.”

UCL is in the midst of building a new campus in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in the heart of East London, which will be embedded in the community there. Initiatives include a new engineering apprenticeship scheme for local young people, mentoring, and taster days for Newham residents.

Faced with such volatility in the market in which universities operate both in the UK and internationally, how must higher education leaders adapt?

“The next couple of years will be difficult,” predicted Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex. “The kind of leadership we need is less heroic, and based far more on listening. We will need to persuade colleagues and partners, make cultural changes, and you can’t do that by telling.”

That aside, he concluded that universities must continue to celebrate their ongoing contribution to society and not become too mired in policy wrangles and data exercises. “There are so many things that we do, so many expectations society has of us, such as free access to our knowledge,” he said. “Collectively we deliver all of these things for society and we need to celebrate that.” 

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