V-cs bemoan constraints on educational innovation

Conservative university cultures cost UK in global leadership, chiefs complain

June 18, 2015
Woman exhausted on papers

Vice-chancellors say that the “slow pace of innovation” at UK universities is a result of the “deep-seated conservatism of university cultures” and a lack of incentives for change given relatively stable funding, according to a survey.

The seventh edition of PA Consulting Group’s annual survey of UK vice-chancellors, which focuses on innovation, finds that university leaders “acknowledge the importance of emerging global innovations in educational programmes, modes of study and learners’ experiences”. At the same time, however, they “see the UK system lagging international leaders in every major area of innovation”.

In the report, Lagging Behind: Are UK Universities Falling Behind in the Global Innovation Race?, released on 18 June, one vice-chancellor is quoted as saying: “The HE sector is well-funded and demand is strong. Compared to other sectors, the conditions to drive innovation are just not there.”

Another says: “Never underestimate the extent to which universities are conservative places. Driving innovation is hard work and often requires leaders to go out on a limb.”

Mike Boxall, a higher education specialist at PA Consulting Group and co-author of the report, said that a fall in the number of 18-year-olds, the potential growth of alternatives to higher education and possible future funding problems could all amount to challenges for universities.

“Sitting and waiting for things to happen is a very dangerous place for universities,” he added.

Fifty vice-chancellors took part in the survey, and their responses are analysed in the report.

It identifies seven areas of innovation that could transform higher education, including “student-driven flexible study modes”, “uses of technology to transform learning experiences” and “uses of student data analytics for personalised services”, including to target students at risk of dropping out.

As examples of innovation it cites Coventry University’s low-cost offshoot, Arizona State University’s “model of differentiated campuses” and the Chemelot campus hub in the Netherlands for business and research in new materials set up by partners including Maastricht University.

Between 25 and 30 per cent of vice-chancellors regarded three trends – applications of technology to transform learning, closer integration of study with work and use of data analytics – as “essential for survival”. A further 40 to 50 per cent regarded those three areas as “key to competitiveness”.

However, except for curriculum modernisation, 30 to 60 per cent of vice-chancellors said that important innovations were “mainly overseas”. And, again excepting curriculum reform, not more than 5 per cent of vice-chancellors describe the UK as a world leader in innovation.

The main factors constraining innovation that were identified are “adaptability of operations” (cited by 48 per cent), “capacity of staff” (35 per cent) and “willingness to change” (30 per cent).

The report says that survey respondents identified “the deep-seated conservatism of university cultures and the aversion to risk-taking among many management teams and especially from governing bodies” as a key factor. Another was a “perceived lack of incentives for innovation, given that most institutions remain relatively well-funded with student demand holding up and satisfaction levels apparently rising”.


Relevance is paramount

Education provision in most UK universities has changed relatively little, and risks becoming irrelevant to the lifetime needs of students and society, as a recent survey by PA Consulting Group shows (news, page 11). Sector leaders should be worried about this but seem not to be.

Employers do not ask potential recruits “What have you learned?” They ask: “What can you do?”; “What have you done?”; and “What are you like?” Individuals and employers increasingly favour learning that is gained through experiences, challenges and working in a variety of settings. Yet most universities expect students to fit into the prescribed -teaching structures laid down over decades.

Vice-chancellors and other institutional leaders who took part in the survey acknowledge the importance of innovations in learning programmes, study modes and pathways. But, with a few notable exceptions, UK universities have been slow and even reluctant to embrace them. As a result, the UK higher education system is lagging behind world
leaders in modernising and adapting to changing needs and expectations.

The disconcerting impression from our survey is that most vice-chancellors recognise this situation but remain relatively relaxed about it. In the short term, they point to the buoyant demand for current provision and the healthy finances of many providers. And looking ahead, many assume that patterns of demand, participation and provision in the higher education system will remain constant.

Even if one accepts the view that the scale and importance of innovations in education have been overstated, this still seems to be a dangerously complacent position. Traditional universities are facing growing competition from alternative providers and modes of learning. In addition, there is a lot of pressure to make all providers accountable for the relevance and value of their services, judged in terms of successful student outcomes. 

An increased demand for relevant and rewarding student outcomes seems inevitable. It will be hard, if not impossible, for UK universities to satisfy these demands without significant changes to their current models. Their competitiveness will depend on embracing the innovations already being demonstrated in the international higher education system. This will be difficult, counter-cultural and even risky for institutions and their leadership – but the alternatives are worse.

Mike Boxall
PA Consulting Group

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Article originally published as: V-cs wanting to lead from the front are frustrated by a lack of followers (18 June 2015)

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