Purpose, Honesty, and Pragmatism

 I was reminded recently by Professor Sir Paul Collier’s superb essay  – The New Pragmatism – in the Times Literary Supplement for 27 January 2017 – of Jonathan Tepperman’s book The Fix. Collier favourably cites The Fix, which examines success stories from around the globe of how governments and countries have solved seemingly impossible problems. Tepperman’s justified optimism despite a mood of general gloom, his analysis of what can be learnt from surprising sources, and his evidence for the pragmatism and ingenuity adopted by the remarkable leaders in his case studies should be a source of inspiration and encouragement for all of us now working in higher education.
We are now beyond the cliché that universities are subject to more change and uncertainty for a generation. A Chair has been appointed for the Office for Students, with a Chief Executive to follow shortly. Sir John Kingman and Sir Mark Walport have been appointed to similar roles in UKRI. There may yet be amelioration of some aspects of the HE and Research Bill but not much of substance will change. The Teaching Excellence Framework has been created and despite the protests about what it measures and how  its judgements will start to reshape the public’s perception of the current largely stable order of universities’ standings. The UK will leave the EU, admittedly on terms still  to be negotiated, but we need to look beyond the arguments of whether this is a good decision to how we can best shape the outcomes for BreHExit and benefit from the changed world in which the UK and we will live.

Accepting the reality of these changes is not defeatism. It is right that universities are prominent in the public intellectual space making the arguments and presenting evidence to influence the direction of government policy. But I am also reminded of the 1980s and the rapidity of reforms introduced by the first and second Thatcher administrations. These included cuts to recurrent grant based on perceived performance, the introduction of what has become the REF, the emphasis on strategy, purpose and utility for the economic advantage of the nation, and the new opportunities for student recruitment, following the introduction of higher fees for overseas students. Some universities mistook a permanent socio-cultural shift (reinforced by reforms in other sectors, such as deregulation in the City) for temporary political policies that would later be overturned by a more benign administration. They were wrong. Those that recognised that what might initially dismay them could create new advantages for the entrepreneurial, and that the reforms were not to be dismissed outright because of distaste for the political colour of the originators, began to thrive. A notable example would be Warwick; but there were others too, and it would be fair to say that they were generally from the newest arrivals in the sector. They had less to lose, and more to gain.

Universities that now assume that they do not need to pay attention to their distinctive purpose and core strengths may face an uncertain future. There are many who are crafting new strategies based on a realistic appraisal of their current standing, and are addressing the existential questions that arise from that. But there are still some who expend futile energy and time in their opposition to a sea change that cannot be resisted but may be channelled to the advantage of the confident and well-led. The risks in pursuing alternative strategies – for example looking overseas for new partnerships and markets – will be fraught and need careful management. But the risk of doing nothing will be greater. University leadership needs to fuse honesty about mission and capability with pragmatism in implementing the changes necessary to their strategy and operational model. Established higher education providers must learn by looking outside themselves and accepting that new and recent entrants to the sector are not, as some perceive them,  basket-cases waiting to be woven from malign motives and poor quality. It is noteworthy that Independent HE, the mission group for independent providers of higher education, is growing in strength and has recently attracted BPP and Pearson to its ranks.

We all have a duty to advise and to help shape the new regulatory arrangements so that they work for the best interests of students and our communities to preserve the best characteristics of one of the best sectors in the world. We can do that, as so often in our past by imaginative pragmatism and adaptive management. Those qualities will ensure a more rapid evolution of our institutions to the new circumstances we face. It can be our Fix. And that is possible whilst holding firm to the values and benefits that higher education contribute to society and which will continue to shape the future of the world.

Jonathan Nicholls
Director of Strategic and
Policy Services, Education Team
T: 0121 237 3012
E: jonathan.nicholls@shma.co.uk

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