Losing our place in the vanguard?

Senior figures worry that the UK is lagging behind the innovators and entrepreneurs pushing the frontiers of higher education

June 18, 2015
John Gill, editor, Times Higher Education
Source: Peter Searle

“One of the most influential people in Silicon Valley” announced that he was stepping down last week. But it wasn’t Twitter boss Dick Costolo, or another chino-clad princeling from Apple or Facebook, who was described in such exalted terms – it was John Hennessy, president of Stanford University.

“Normally, a university president stepping down isn’t a big deal in the world of business,” the news website Business Insider explained, but Hennessy is different: “a quiet power broker with lots of connections”. Those connections include directorships at Google and Cisco; and as Business Insider notes, many of the tech entrepreneurs who now shape the world aren’t just Stanford alumni, they also started their businesses while studying there.

Speaking to Times Higher Education earlier this month, Steve Hilton, the former strategy adviser to David Cameron, described the “profound effect” of his stint as a visiting professor at Stanford (he is now a Silicon Valley-based tech entrepreneur – what else?).

Asked what lessons UK universities might learn from it, Hilton cited “a much greater sense of openness” and suggested that the UK’s universities were “too insular, too inward-looking”.

This was a sweeping statement based more on observation than experience, he admitted, but there’s no getting away from comparisons between the US and the UK, and Hilton’s remarks chime with concerns raised by the former universities minister David Willetts in our cover story this week.

Reflecting on his years in government, he cites a frustration that many UK universities operate on the basis that “we’ve been around a long time, our job is to pass [this] on to the next generation much as it is now”. For Willetts, this was exemplified by the failure of any UK university to adopt the expansionist ambition shown by US-owned Laureate (which, incidentally, is reported to be planning a $1 billion initial public offering in 2016).

“We need some universities with an enterprise model – to recognise a fantastic opportunity to operate in five continents…to become a great British export,” Willetts says. “I had commercial investors saying to me that if British higher education came up with an investable proposition, they would put a billion into creating a global chain.”

Many will baulk at the suggestion that UK universities should emulate the world’s largest operator of for-profit colleges, but it shows the scale of what Willetts was hoping to achieve.

It’s interesting too that he chose the Laureate model, rather than Stanford’s, as his example – perhaps because the UK has world-leading research universities, but what it doesn’t have is a higher education equivalent of Amazon or Google, with global reach and an aggressive online strategy.

There’s evidence this week that some UK vice-chancellors also harbour concerns about a lack of innovation. An annual survey by PA Consulting Group suggests that some university leaders recognise that their institutions are “lagging behind” in adopting new forms of flexible study and technology.

That’s not to say that every university should or could seek to emulate the likes of Stanford or follow the route taken by even the most successful commercial players.

But it does pose a challenge. “Innovation” is an overused word, but ossification is not a strategy, and protecting universities – their values and traditions – is not the same as protecting the status quo.


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