University strategic plans: a world of superlatives and meaningless aspiration

Claire Taylor challenges the absence of distinctiveness and diversity in an increasingly homogeneous HE landscape

October 25, 2015
Colour swatch

We are all familiar with the paint swatch: the glossy card with hundreds of paint options laid out neatly in subtly varying shades, helping the customer to make their choice. The swatch is an essential tool for identifying just the right shade of paint that is needed for your living room or bathroom makeover, and I’ve never known anyone to embark on a decorating project without consulting one.  

A recent examination of one well-known brand’s paint swatches revealed that, among the hundreds of paints on offer, there were no fewer than 53 colours associated with the category neutral. Within this category, I found a plethora of “whites”, including: All White, Shaded White, White Tie, New White, House White, Lime White, Off-White, Old White and more. And that was before I looked at shades of “vanilla”, “magnolia” and others, which (let’s face it) are all just shades of pale, with tonal differences so slight that sometimes only the most discerning eye can perceive them at all.

The analogy is, I hope, clear for higher education. Even within an increasingly marketised era, where there should be clear choices on offer for prospective students, differentiation and diversity among the mainstream higher education providers has not fully developed. At a recent conference on higher education strategy, the main presenter acknowledged that “there is an awful lot of vanilla around”, with university strategic plans all seeking to achieve common goals using a language of superlatives and meaningless aspiration: “to be world leading in x’”; “to be the best at y”; “to be internationally renowned for z”.

Perhaps it is acceptable for many universities to be content with being a “whiter shade of pale”, and to pursue the “vanilla” strategic plan. But there is a danger of limiting choice for prospective students – of stifling the brand that is UK higher education and of not fulfilling key obligations on the part of universities to exist for the public good.

I am not alone in my observations. The report Excellence in Diversity, written by Paul Kleiman of Ciel Associates for GuildHE, highlights the outstanding contribution of the UK’s smaller universities, and regionally focused and specialist institutions to the nation’s economic, social and cultural prosperity. The report is to be welcomed, and contains many excellent examples of strategic and practical initiatives that are certainly not vanilla, nor a whiter shade of pale, but paint a picture of a potentially vibrant and colourful corner of the higher education sector.

But distinctiveness and diversity should be the concern of the whole sector, not just the domain of the small and specialist, and I suggest that what is needed is more thoughtful, creative and courageous university leadership, particularly when engaging in the development of our strategies and plans.

In this respect, I commend to you the work of Ron Barnett and his book Imagining the University. In this seminal work, Barnett throws out a challenge to all of us involved in the too-often overly managerial task of corporate or strategic planning and urges us to situate our work within a framework predicated upon hopeful fictions”:

The development of the university’s largest visions, hopes and intentions is fraught with hazard. The production of its corporate strategy, accordingly, can only be at best the establishment of a set of hopeful fictions. All that a corporate strategy can achieve is that of sightings of institutional possibilities. They are the sightings of lands, where landings may take place; and perhaps of strange creatures lurking.”

I wonder how often we, as senior leaders, give ourselves the time and space to indulge in “sightings of lands, where landings may take place; and perhaps of strange creatures lurking”. I love that notion of a “strange creature lurking” and just what that strangeness could mean for my university in terms of opening up new possibilities, hitherto unimagined.

However, Barnett is also, to some extent, a pragmatist, as illustrated by his explanation of “feasible utopias”:

“Vision is a necessary component of a utopia, for it is the imaginary sighting – as in a vision – of a world or a situation not yet present… (But)…the vision that is characteristic of a feasible utopia is a practical vision. It searches outwards, with its hold on the real world becoming somewhat tenuous; but still that bond will not be broken. That bond is always there, along which the wandering eye can return, to make sense of the vision in the practical interstices of the university.”

As university leaders, we have a responsibility to maintain the intellectual “space” needed for us to identify and develop hopeful fictions in relation to strategy – only then will we avoid becoming another shade of pale in an ever-crowded sector.

However, as well as creating capacity to explore new lands, potential landings and yes, perhaps even face strange creatures, we also have to ensure a practical, “real world” edge; a feasible utopia founded upon a practical vision. Vision and courage are key – as is a determination to never, ever succumb to being a whiter shade of pale.

Claire Taylor is pro vice-chancellor (academic strategy) at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London.

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Reader's comments (1)

Totally agree with the importance of diversity of mission, for student choice, and to avoid a narrowing of the possibilities of how HE can be, and to promote innovation. However, there's also a case for vanilla being a valid choice, or at least, for there to be many shared qualities amongst HEIs, and be proud of this. Do we accept too easily assumptions of marketisation, that we have to stand out to be viable? Good quality higher education which is local for some prospective students, integrated with the community and with regional employers, is an important part of the sector. Where you are may be as important as what you are like. And an excellent course into which high numbers of students are crammed wouldn't remain excellent - there is a strong case for a large number of courses at different HEIs, teaching on a human scale in a community where members know one another. Teaching well, adding to the sum of human knowledge with good quality research, and doing both in an environment which supports study and values the work of all members of the community, could be more important than being unique. As well as cherishing diverse missions, HE can look to derive strength and growth via collaboration for common goals. Sort of like ice cream, there are lots of flavours, tho' vanilla's always popular, and it's OK to always be cold, sweet, and creamy.