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An agenda of change to move us on from “The Enemy Within”

After an analysis of what's gone wrong, we present an agenda for change to move on the narrative about universities and drive real change and renewal.
This article is more than 6 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Charles Heymann is a consultant in strategic communications and reputation management.

Universities and their leaders appear to be in a spiral of fatalism about their current public perception and reputation. Just seeking out better public relations is not the answer. There will need to be real change and renewal to get out of the rut we’ve found ourselves in.

For more about how we got here, read The enemy within.

Here we set out what a programme of change and renewal might look like. It’s not perfect. It’s not costed. It’ll clash in places. There will be hundreds of other ideas. But it’s a starting point for discussion, planning and action.

Step one – an overhaul of senior pay

There must be a sector-wide agreement to freeze senior management pay; this should be not just vice chancellors but for the whole of the senior team. This will send a powerful message that governing bodies get why people are angry. Then there must be a reform programme beyond the voluntary code proposed back in January.

Remuneration bodies must be opened up. This could include:

  • Publishing full, unredacted minutes from all formal discussion and votes on vice chancellors’ remuneration, with full disclosure of grace-and-favour properties and other perks.
  • Co-opting or electing representatives of employees, students and alumni to scrutinise and vote on final packages.
  • Publishing vice chancellors’ job descriptions, their annual and long-term objectives, and the benchmarks, data and supporting documentation used in decision making.
  • Introduce the principle of “earn-back pay” – a proportion of core salary based on hitting long-term targets, not just a reward for short-term decisions.

We should feel confident that we know what should be a reasonable amount to spend on all our senior leaders. Commissioning an independent assessment of pay benchmarks on which to base these decisions – including the university’s market position, international competitiveness and individual performance – could go a long way to help this effort.

The sector should publish an independently audited, central register of vice chancellors’ and other senior leaders’ remuneration for every registered higher education provider – as part of an annual fair pay report for the whole sector. This should include detailed comparisons and pay-ratios between top brass and the lowest paid workers, with justifications for year-on-year changes.

There should be bold thinking on progressive pay and reward policies across the workforce, including:

  • Committing to the living wage as a minimum for all employees and contractors;
  • Closing the gender and ethnicity pay gaps;
  • Providing meaningful, long-term and secure career progression for fractional and contract academic staff; and,
  • Ensuring that externally outsourced staff are on the same terms and conditions as directly managed staff.

Step two – embracing democracy

Universities could be genuinely democratic institutions. No more archaic, hierarchical structures or corporate guff masquerading as meaningful staff engagement and student voice.

It’s time higher education looked seriously at alternative governance models. Both the very real and technical, as well as the imagined barriers to reform, shouldn’t stand in the way of innovation.

For example, universities could look to one of the great Victorian liberal philosophies – cooperatives.

For cooperatives in higher education, the broad principles are clear:

  • Joint democratic participation in leadership and management, with equal membership for students, academics and professionals.
  • Employee ownership, giving workers a genuine stake in institutions’ future, through financial incentives.
  • Creating end-to-end ethical businesses in commercial activity – supply chains, day-to-day trading and investment portfolios.
  • Setting up cooperative social enterprises, for example on accommodation, support services and banking services both for the university community and where these are needed beyond its borders.
  • Co-production and ownership of teaching, pedagogy and curriculum, to raise academic quality.

Alongside this, the sector must make an unequivocal commitment to NUS and elected students’ union representatives as a genuine, legitimate voice of our student communities. Senior teams need to give their student representatives the tools, training and resources to hold them to account – and fully able to mediate, advocate and lobby on behalf of their members.

As Jim Dickinson always argues on Wonkhe, it takes courage for students to stand up for what they believe in, just as it takes courage for university leaders to listen and act with them.

Step three – ending the class divide

The current system of academic selection should be reformed and we should seriously consider a more comprehensive university system.

Professor Tim Blackman, vice chancellor of Middlesex University, published a startlingly bold paper last year – building on work of think tanks like The Sutton Trust.

He questions why the sector accepts comprehensive principles for schools, yet completely rejects them for higher education. He proposes a series of important and radical changes:

  • Setting a minimum standard for students to succeed in higher education.
  • Mixed tariff institutions, setting quotas for the proportion of student places that can be subject to academic selection.
  • Targets to balance social class intakes, driven by levies on the most selective universities.
  • Developing innovative teaching practice and curricula by mixing students of different backgrounds and abilities and teaching them together.
  • A transformation in how we invest in widening participation. This would eliminate waste on low-impact, low-quality projects and focus on regional and national programmes which deliver at scale.

Blackman argues the obsession with highly selective universities being unquestionably “the best”, continually reinforces social segregation, not equal opportunity.

“A good hospital”, Blackman wrote, “is one where its clinicians cure illnesses better than another hospital, not one where the patients are the most healthy when they are admitted.”

In addition, universities and ministers could consider the following:

  • A re-examining of the case for post-qualification admissions. The current system also penalises lower-attainers and makes increasingly little sense in a system where numbers of unconditional offers are soaring. Clearing is a buyers’ market where predictions are not worth the paper they are written on, given the ongoing overhaul of A-level and GCSE reforms.
  • The removal of the Russell Group as a specific measure in DfE’s statistical publications. Yes, it includes some of the best universities in the world, but it’s a self-selecting group and so its use in statistics is incredibly poor policymaking.
  • The consideration of a comprehensive withdrawal from unscientific media-run league tables, compiled with random metrics and opaque methodology. Universities have a choice about whether to use league tables for external PR and internal decision-making.
  • An expansion of apprenticeship provision, and while we’re at it, develop more lasting, less competitive relationships with further education colleges to ensure that local provision can be better planned together in the interest of creating new and innovative education opportunities.

Step four – social entrepreneurs

Universities need to be unashamed social entrepreneurs, constantly focused on public impact – led by values not commercial self-interest.

We should adopt a campaign mentality – building and allying with activists on everything from mental health to job insecurity, from violence against women to welfare reform. Universities need to use the latest up-to-date campaigning techniques and technologies to genuinely engage people and politicians in those missions.

We need to reimagine the idea of the civic university. Universities must be anchors in their regions in industry, education and the public sector. But this needs to be extended to tackle the urgent issues that the UK faces – social mobility; equality and diversity; poverty gaps; an ageing population; health and social care; skills gaps; and uneven economic growth.

We also need to work out how to project our social and civic activism globally.

We should set aside blue-on-blue action, where institutions spend tens of millions of pounds on competing in our system for the same students. How are we projecting our whole university system around the world?

We must consider how institutions will collaborate transnationally – in research and teaching. And together, as a sector, ask how can we exploit digital platforms to transform and open up UK academic excellence to the world?

These are not bolt-ons to what we do. This is about people’s lives. It is universities’ core mission.

None of these are easy solutions, but we can’t just carry on as we are, keep our heads down and hope that a make-do-and-mend approach will give the sector the sustainable foundations that it needs for the next several decades.

7 responses to “An agenda of change to move us on from “The Enemy Within”

  1. Lots of good sense here. I’d also add that there is a need for visible leadership. Relying on your membership association for public representation is a weakness, not a strength. HE has some fantastically capable, intelligent and warm leaders (and some not so) but too many of them are hiding behind either UUK or their press offices, or both. If the reluctance is driven by embarrassment about pay packets, then the solution is set out above.

  2. And more intention to build real communities in each university – values driven with defined cultures which people can opt for; applications driven by a good uni/person match and not just UCAS tariff points; people go to uni to grow holistically, no?

  3. You have to understand what you’re saying, though. “meaningful, long-term and secure career progression” is expensive, so there will be fewer positions unless someone comes up with lots more money, which they won’t. So the direct consequence of better jobs is fewer positions and diminished chances for early-career academics.
    (for the avoidance of doubt – I think many academic short-term contracts are immoral and should be abolished; some fill a real need for teachers and shouldn’t be)
    You can’t just wake up and say “we’re going to make careers more stable for the people who are currently in the Uni” without harming the chances of the ones who want to be. Mandatory retirement has gone. Far too many people get PhDs for the number of positions they desire. The obvious answer is to cut the number of PhD places, but EVERYONE is against that (Govt, Uni management, academics, the students themselves).
    So YES Universities shouldn’t take advantage of people with poor contracts – but be careful what you wish for.

    (J. Owen’s comment above hits the nail – it’s about values, not making inflexible rules)

  4. From outside the sector I’d say this is mostly barking up the wrong tree. People should earn what they deserve and deserve what they earn; be confident – pay your Vice Chancellor what they are worth. Universities shouldn’t kowtow to a culture of wealth envy. Widening participation is a good thing, but targets, quotas and levies always look like manipulation and social engineering. One of the things people distrust about universities is the fact that *anyone* can get in. to study any subject they like – however noddy – and vast numbers of students are deemed academically brilliant enough to get a 1st, when clearly students now are no cleverer than previous generations. It’s devalued the university education and that’s a problem for everyone.

  5. Check out THES graph plotting VC salaries not against their local competitors as the Guardian absurdly did but against CEOs of equivalent sized companies (by employees)… turns out VC salaries plot out exactly against size of institution. Remember too, that when comparing to the FTSE 350, salary accounts for less than a quarter of a CEO’s remuneration in the commercial sector. In HE the average VC salary represents 87% of their total remuneration. in sum, the average FTSE 350 CEO receives approximately eight times more than the average VC…. if you want monkeys to run universities follow the herd now and depress remuneration further…. – as others have said the real problems lie elsewhere (40% of firsts in some departments…and 2-4% of 2.2s even the students there are complaining now as they know their degrees are devaluing)

  6. Sorry l think the ‘solutions’ are facile. We are essentially Humboldtian institutions created to underwrite an industrial state in a post industrial world. Universities have a habit of clinging to their original mission, unless it is to engage in some social climbing. Science and technology only really became an accepted part of the curriculum after its introduction in the technical colleges in the industrial cities. Universities would not expand to accommodate the increasing number of qualified post war school leavers so the Red Bricks were created. None would cater for adults so the OU was born. Nor would they take vocational education seriously so the Polytechnics had to be created. No one creating a new public university now would replicate the existing models. The world has changed but we have not- nor do we really see the need to for the most part. There is some excellent innovation out there but nowhere near enough of it. All too rarely do we ask ourselves what people really need from us. We have the institutional capacity to innovate but for the most part do not. That is what underlies the attacks.

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