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.