Significant milestones have come thick and fast for UK universities – with a clutch of 1960s “plate-glass” institutions celebrating their half-century in recent years.
But the University of Essex’s 50th anniversary in 2014 was more than the usual round of public lectures, alumni fundraising appeals and drinks receptions.
“We wanted it to be more than just a celebration – we wanted it to be a springboard for the next 50 years,” explained Anthony Forster, the university’s vice-chancellor, days after Essex was named Times Higher Education’s University of the Year 2018.
“We wanted to take a moment to think about our values, identity and what we stand for – it seemed a good opportunity to take stock.”
Many of the initiatives that arose from this sustained self-reflection, which saw Essex attempt to reconnect with the “rebellious” spirit of its founders, won particular praise from the awards judging panel, notably the decisive move to eliminate the gender pay gap for professorial staff by moving women up three specially created pay levels. Judges also recognised efforts to tackle casualisation by giving staff contracts to graduate teaching assistants and ensuring that all staff are paid more than the Living Wage.
“Our staff spent more than 1,200 hours sitting together and reflecting on our founding vision, which was to be freer, more daring and more experimental,” recalled Professor Forster, who has led Essex since 2012. “We had to ask, ‘Did we still stand for those values?’”
THE’s judges praised Essex as “a university that is putting people first”, but measures to improve staff conditions, however, have come at a financial cost, admitted Professor Forster.
“Having principles sometimes costs money, but we were prepared to recognise this and step up to the plate,” he said. On tackling casualisation, he added: “We would not be living our values if we were appointing staff on fixed-term contracts and rolling these over each year when we could make permanent faculty appointments.”
Some of the measures, such as the one-off pay rise for female professors, were more controversial, Professor Forster added. “Some said it was illegal – it wasn’t – or unwise, as the pay gap would simply re-emerge. It hasn’t, and the policy will stand the test of time,” he said.
Rediscovering the university’s values in this way in 2014 came at what was perhaps a good time for Essex. During the 2018 lecturers’ strikes over proposed pension cuts, anger about reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme morphed into a deeper fury over working conditions in academia. Did the staff action plan blunt some of these critiques at Essex? (Professor Forster was also one of the first vice-chancellors to publicly advocate higher employer pension contributions, which have now been endorsed by Universities UK).
“It’s not why we did it – we did it because it was the right thing to do,” Professor Forster explained.
But, on pensions and tackling the gender pay gap, Essex has been happy to “take a very distinctive position and be a front-runner on these issues,” he said, with the 50th anniversary milestone reinforcing this spirit.
Professor Forster added: “I’m not going to tell anyone else how they should manage their special moment, but asking how we could refresh our founding vision has been immensely powerful for us.”
Outstanding Support for Students: inherently accessible
This year’s winner of the Outstanding Support for Students category – the University of Kent – took a novel and proactive approach to supporting students with disability. Through an initiative called Opera (Opportunity, Productivity, Engagement, Reducing barriers, Achievement), the university made 2,600 adjustments to benefit not only disabled students but all those enrolled at the institution.
“Universities often try to provide ladders for disabled students to climb over the barriers they face in higher education, but we thought, ‘Why not just knock those barriers down?’” said April McMahon, Kent’s deputy vice-chancellor.
To do so, the university brought together its student and IT services in collaboration with Jisc, the UK sector’s main technology body. “It was about how we could use technology. For example, how can we use different software so we can get people with vision impairment to have stuff read to them?” Professor McMahon said. “There’s also lecture capture. Students who had to spend time in hospital have told us how valuable they find that.”
The important thing, Professor McMahon continued, was to build this ethos into the university’s brand and guidelines. “It’s also about explaining to staff why it’s important to do things in this way…what it is they are signing up to when they have to present material in a certain way or provide reading lists with a link to click straight through [to a recorded reading],” she said.
“It is not just talking about inclusivity but a commitment to what that means, and you have to find ways to, gently, call people out on that.”
Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year: style and flexibility
“I was lucky to have two wonderful students who let me learn on them,” said Helen Gleeson, Cavendish professor of physics at the University of Leeds, about the first of the 31 doctoral students she has supervised since 1990. “It’s a very individual relationship, and it’s different every time. I realised that just doing what had worked for me wasn’t necessarily the right thing, because everybody has different needs and expectations and aspirations.”
The key, said Professor Gleeson, winner of the Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year title, was “having a style but modifying that and being flexible”.
Once she had understood that “there’s a significant perception of power” built into the supervision relationship, Professor Gleeson worked hard to “empower the students to be clear about their expectations, so there’s a grown-up conversation about the supervisor’s expectations, if that’s needed, in an environment that’s supportive rather than ‘I expect you to do this. You must do that.’ That’s really not going to work in a three-and-a-half year relationship, which will have its up and downs.”
Supervisors also had an important role, in Professor Gleeson’s view, in helping people as “they finish their degree and move into the next stage of training”. One of the keys was “looking at what they are doing in the context of what everybody else is doing, to try to find their unique selling point”.
Although she “tend[s] not to go to the pub with my students”, Professor Gleeson said she still believed in keeping things fairly informal. “It is a partnership where we’re going to work together on an interesting problem. I don’t think that lends itself to formality.”
International Impact Award: letting partners find their own solutions
An academic has cited the establishment of a “collaborative, participatory approach” to international partnerships and a willingness to “be flexible” as the key reasons why his project to reform teacher education in Palestine won the THE International Impact Award.
Tony Mahon, principal lecturer (learning and teaching) at Canterbury Christ Church University, was leader of the project in which the institution collaborated with the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education and seven Palestinian universities to overhaul teacher education degree programmes and upgrade the knowledge and skills of underqualified teachers.
More than 4,500 teachers benefited from the programme across two years, and the World Bank is now looking to support the replication of the project at early childhood level.
Mr Mahon said that it was challenging working in a country with such different educational, cultural and geopolitical contexts, but added that the success of the partnership was down to “building up trust and relationships with the people that you’re working with and always being willing to listen and being ready to be flexible”.
“What contributed to the success was the approach that we adopted, which is a collaborative, participatory approach,” he said.
“Although the project has its objectives, there can be many ways to reach those objectives. Maybe you don’t always reach them in the way that you hoped for, but the important thing is that the outcomes of the project are manageable within the context.”
Such a strategy required his team to give their partners in Palestine “the space and the time to try out the different pedagogical approaches that we were introducing” and “to find their own solutions”, he added.
“It’s really a journey towards ownership of the project. Our role is as international consultants so we can bring our knowledge and expertise…but it’s about finding how they can be adapted for the local context.”
Outstanding Contribution to Leadership Development: all about people
Drawing up a bold and ambitious strategic plan is one thing; delivering it is another – and it requires the right sort of leaders.
In 2016, the University of Stirling set out to develop a “culture of confident and skilled leaders” to support their teams and deliver the institution’s strategic plan, with the project winning the Outstanding Contribution to Leadership Development category at the THE Awards.
The university’s organisation development team secured accreditation from the Institute of Leadership and Management for three different programmes: for team leaders, line managers and established mid-level managers.
All the participants polled rated the course as very good or excellent and said that they would recommend it to others.
Speaking about the programme, Rachel Norman, chair in food security and sustainability, said that while academics may be skilled in research or teaching, that “doesn’t necessarily mean we know how to communicate with people and lead”.
Tikus Little, senior teaching fellow, said that the “old idea of heroic leadership is dead in the water. We all have a leadership role to play, and there are lots of insights you can get from this course about the best way to go about it for you.”
Hall of fame: other winners from the THE Awards 2018
Most Innovative Teacher of the Year
Theo Gilbert, University of Hertfordshire
International Collaboration of the Year
University of Central Lancashire
Research Project of the Year: Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences
University of Leicester
Most Innovative Contribution to Business-University Collaboration
Recycling Lives, in collaboration with the University of Central Lancashire
Widening Participation or Outreach Initiative of the Year
University of East London
Excellence and Innovation in the Arts
University of Central Lancashire
Technological Innovation of the Year
Harper Adams University
Outstanding Entrepreneurial University
King’s College London
Business School of the Year
ESCP Europe Business School (London)
THE DataPoints Merit Award
University of Dundee
The Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award
Research Project of the Year: STEM
University of Hertfordshire