The future looks bright

On the eve of the White Paper, Steve West reflects on the passion, partnerships and diversity that will stand the sector in good stead

June 16, 2011

Credit: Elly Walton

For 12 months I have inhabited two connected worlds undergoing seismic change - higher education and the National Health Service. The NHS has had a White Paper and is trying to make sense of it. The higher education sector is still waiting, with hope and anticipation, for its own. A key difference between these two sectors is their ability to respond and determine their own futures. In higher education we have freedoms that can only be dreamed of in the NHS - and we have significant opportunities ahead.

I am optimistic about the future for my institution and for English higher education, despite significant challenges to our culture, funding streams and ways of working.

Why am I optimistic? First, our foundations are strong. We deliver research and education that is the envy of the world. We are actively sought out by regional, national and global partners. Even the banks are keen to lend us money, seeing us as an excellent investment.

Second, our sector's diversity is a key asset. One size, one experience and one offer do not fit all. We must challenge those who approach the sector with one model in mind and who make comparisons based on metrics no longer suited to the global knowledge economy or the market. Our students understand this diversity, so why are others so myopic?

Third, universities are creative places. We innovate, explore, develop new knowledge, push boundaries and seek new ways to engage and deliver impact. Capitalising on opportunities should be no problem. Fourth, we have highly talented and motivated staff with the drive and ambition to transform lives. Fifth, our students have a passion to become the next generation of leaders and innovators, and to shape the world around us.

With that platform, we have every reason to be optimistic. Provided we have relevant and high-quality provision and the ability to attract, retain and support talented staff and students, the future looks bright. The demand for higher education is clearly there.

Increasingly, institutions are prioritising, focusing and investing in what they do best. Business models and working practices are changing and difficult decisions are being taken as we reshape the sector. At the University of the West of England, we are developing a broad range of strategic partnerships. From our leadership of innovation networks connecting small and medium-sized enterprises across the region, to our partnerships with companies such as HP, Microsoft, Juniper and Schneider and our school, further education and community partnerships, each brings new ideas, new opportunities and new ways of working, thinking and investing. All are adding value and having impact locally, nationally and internationally.

The drive to increase value and quality requires institutions to prioritise, focus their academic portfolios and adapt as students demand changes. If we respond with careful collaboration and planning, thereby ensuring national and sub-national provision for subjects, we should not see this as negative.

If we are serious about quality and investing to compete on a global scale, we must collaborate more seriously and allow different models of education provision to be tested. We must fund and encourage excellence wherever it is found, and be more open and courageous. By way of example, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, which is a joint venture between UWE, the University of Bristol, the NHS and industry partners, competes on a global basis. Its strength is through partnership.

Of course, fundamental to this partnership model are the benefits these partnerships bring to our students and staff. We need to be explicit about what students can expect from their studies. Equally we should be explicit about what we expect of them as they engage with their learning environments and as co-designers of their education. Developing high-quality critical thinkers with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes needed for a changing world is essential.

Whatever the higher education White Paper says, the balance between collaboration and competition will be key. The government wants to see different models and approaches in order to encourage higher quality and ambition within higher education and the knowledge economy. My hope is that we are given the freedom, opportunity and support to deliver on that agenda. Our education transforms lives, and that must never be forgotten.

The opportunities are exciting and significant. We need courage and inspirational leadership, but as a sector we should be up for the challenge even if it means engaging with the shape, composition and size of the sector to create a sustainable future.

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