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A thousand flowers – the world of sector communities

The UK higher education sector is served by a number of professional groups and associations that bring together specialist staff and common interests. Andy Youell is taken aback by how many of them we have.
This article is more than 4 years old

Andy Youell is Executive Director: Regulation at UCEM

The UK higher education sector supports a number of groups and communities which bring professional services staff together to address issues of common concern, share good practice and facilitate engagement with sector bodies, regulators and funders.

Having worked for a number of sector bodies and funders over the past three decades I have valued the ability to engage with these communities to understand their perspectives and seek their views on issues, problems and proposals.

Somebody recently sought my advice about engaging with these groups and I decided to pull together a simple list of them. I published a draft list and sought help from various social media communities to fill in the gaps and correct the errors.

After a few weeks the list has grown to fifty-nine groups and bodies and I’m still not certain that it is complete. I must admit to being quite surprised by the number and range of groups that exist.

What is a group?

Putting this list together has thrown up a number of issues and, without any claims to making this an authoritative or definitive list, I have had to make a few decisions along the way about which groups should go on the list. I have looked for groups that have some kind of formal organisational structure, a web presence and, most importantly, a membership with a shared interest in some element of professional services or organisational activity. I have excluded sector agencies (which usually exist with some kind of sector ownership model, usually involving UUK and GuildHE) and groups or bodies that focus on particular academic disciplines.

These groups usually define themselves in terms of a professional domain or activity though the language used often refers to job titles. As professional services structures become less homogeneous the boundaries and overlaps between these groups can, in some cases, become more blurred.

A variety of terms are used to describe these groups (including association, group, society, forum, council and network) and they generate a bewildering torrent of acronyms to get your head around. There are a range of organisational (and legal) forms and structures; some are charities and some exist as sub-groups of broader professional organisations.

These groups exist, nay thrive, on the willingness of staff at HE providers to pool knowledge and expertise for the greater good of the sector. When I put the draft list out a few people wondered whether moves to a greater sense of competition across the sector will diminish this collaborative culture in the name of competitive advantage. Although I have heard of a couple of isolated examples of this mindset, my feeling is that these groups tend to focus on hygiene or compliance factors and these are not the areas where providers seek to differentiate themselves in a competitive market.

Who’s in control?

The range of groups is quite astonishing, going from those for literally everybody working in professional services (be they administrators or managers) to groups that are very focussed on a single issue (such as compliance with security standards associated with card payment systems or with the Tier 4 Immigration system). Some groups also cover non-HE education and some groups exist for a specific nation or region.

Their web sites describe how these groups have evolved, often starting with informal networks which have grown, formalised and taken on a life of their own. There is no over-arching design or authority to this landscape and, having seen this list, a few people have expressed the view that this needs rationalisation. It has been suggested that there can be a tendency for some of these groups to become a little siloed and this landscape can sometimes struggle to provide a coherent response to cross-cutting issues. A couple of people have also wondered about the cost to the sector of supporting so many subscription-based groups; as far as I’m aware there is no sector-wide data available to assess this.

This landscape thrives, like a thousand flowers in bloom, and supports the development and dissemination of good practice across professional services in HE. Although there may be imperfections I think we should celebrate and treasure what these groups do for the sector.

The list continues to be updated. If you spot any errors or omissions, please let me know.

7 responses to “A thousand flowers – the world of sector communities

  1. Thanks Matt. Yes, Karel from BUFDG flagged this list a couple of weeks ago. It has been really helpful in filling in some of the gaps for me.

    The PHES list includes most of the bodies I’ve picked up and it also includes a number of organisations that are beyond the scope of my list – things like funding bodies, procurement consortia, sector agencies and mission groups.

    The PHES list also highlights one of the biggest challenges of producing any kind of controlled/definitive list in that a number of the bodies listed no longer exist. In my experience the on-going management and maintenance of lists can be a bigger headache that the initial creation.

  2. Thanks for compiling this list Andy, and for highlighting the fantastic work these organisation do. There is an incredible and prevailing spirit of collaboration and willingness to share best practice, that keeps this (increasing competitive) sector thriving in a healthy and beneficial way.

  3. Hi Andy,

    You may wish to include Heads of eLearning Forum (HeLF) in your list of sector bodies.

    Our next meeting is considering Evaluation and Impact of the digital provision.

    Roger Emery
    Membership Co-ordinator
    HeLF Steering Group

  4. Hi Andy, You may wish to include the Mixed Economy Group of Colleges better known as MEG. They provide a members group for over 40 FE Colleges which have significant HE provision. Regards Carl

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