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Universities can rediscover public value by learning from the BBC

Both universities and the BBC have struggled to define themselves as public bodies as marketisation takes hold. Former BBC strategist Martin Vogel asks what higher education may learn from the Beeb's travails.
This article is more than 7 years old

Martin Vogel is a founder director of Vogel Wakefield, which calls itself the counter-consultancy for leadership development. He was a former journalist and strategy advisor at the BBC.

Higher education’s status as a not-for-profit public service operating in a globally competitive market is unusual. There are not many comparable institutions – and this can make HE’s travails, as it contemplates regulatory change, seem like a lonely struggle.

But universities are not alone. An analogous institution is the BBC, and there are affinities between the two in terms of cultural role, independence and longevity. But the most striking is the exposure to competition while pursuing public purposes. This creates a tendency towards managerialism and instrumentalism that can be counter-productive. To keep this tendency in check, and retain public support, the BBC turned to the concept of public value. Universities are now exploring the same avenue, as they try to regain public connection, revealed by the Brexit vote to be threadbare.

Higher education has suffered some significant defeats recently – not just on Brexit but the closely related topic of immigration policy, and perhaps also an Higher Education and Research Bill which some fear undermines universities’ independence. Yet the sector is still in a relatively strong financial position. The BBC, while securing a reasonable charter for the next 11 years, has never been less confident. What can higher education learn from the BBC’s successes and its mistakes?

Practitioners and managers

Both higher education and the BBC have traditions of practitioner independence which inform how they are regulated. In the BBC’s case, it is editorial autonomy; for higher education, academic freedom. As higher education has become more business focussed, it has become more like the BBC in bringing the tension between practitioner independence and managerialism to the fore.

In universities, this is heightened by the complicating factor of loyalty to discipline and faculty. While journalists and management within the BBC may clash, they assume a shared loyalty to the overall institution. In higher education, loyalty to a discipline, department or college often trumps loyalty to an institution.

Consequently, there’s more mature engagement with the managerial impetus in the BBC, which has a much longer history of strategic conversation between managers and practitioners. This extends back at least to the leadership in the 1990s of John Birt. He engaged staff in the existential threat to the BBC that was arising from marketisation and technological change, as well as the self-inflicted wounds caused by what had become a flabby editorial culture.

In transactional terms, the BBC’s strategic conversation – about why change is proposed – is conducted as an adult-to-adult discourse, and staff understand the rationale even if they are not necessarily on-side. In higher education, this conversation is still immature and more likely to be conducted as parent-to-child. Consequently there’s less ownership.

Public value

The BBC developed the narrative of public value in the middle of the last decade. Adopted from the work of Mark Moore at the Kennedy School of Government, this was seen as a means of winning charter renewal. But it also shifted the discourse inside the BBC from the producer interest to the public interest: outcomes rather than outputs. To take an example: the purpose of the BBC with respect to journalism was not to produce hours of news and current affairs every day but to enable people to participate in democracy as informed citizens. This has been diluted somewhat in the new draft charter, but it still informs how the BBC’s five purposes are expressed.

Public interest is much harder to argue in higher education. There are many applications of academic scholarship and teaching that create obvious benefits to society, as recently highlighted by Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor at Bedfordshire. But, at its core, the purpose of academic research lies in the intrinsic value of knowledge. By definition, the societal benefits that arise from this are speculative and, in many instances, may accrue only for subsequent generations.

Nonetheless, it is entirely possible to define the public value of higher education in ways that recognise this. An analogy from the BBC is its investment in current affairs. Few viewers watch a programme such as Panorama very regularly, if at all, but they understand its value to the public sphere and are content for their licence fees to fund it.

The BBC used its public value narrative ten years ago to secure an advantageous new charter. Although its financial position has declined since, the corporation has still been remarkably effective in the latest charter negotiations. Its purposes remain recognised and it has gained a predictable income stream of compulsory licence fee funding for another decade.

When this previous charter was developed, public value analysis secured a framework for the BBC to set the foundations for the current era of broadcasting, characterised by on-demand viewing by iPlayer and HDTV. Insofar as the BBC has lost its way, it could be argued that this is because it has strayed from the thinking of public purposes. More attention by management to the public purposes would have clarified the BBC’s interest in broadcasting its findings about Jimmy Saville. Its purpose to inform citizenship might have encouraged it to take a more robust view of its independence and impartiality in the EU referendum campaign, with more testing on behalf of audiences of conflicting and sometimes untrue claims. There are prescient lessons here for universities.

On the face of it, the higher education sector is in a weaker position than the BBC. It has to overcome the disadvantage of its fragmentation to present a robust voice to policy makers and the wider public. Compared with other sectors, it has enjoyed a good financial settlement through austerity – but at what cost? The marketisation and commodification of education and research have proved an anathema to many working the sector.

As universities contemplate the gulf between themselves and the public that Brexit has revealed, public value thinking could help them get closer to their communities and articulate purposes that the public would get behind. This in turn could help diffuse tension between academics and managers, if managerialism were mobilised in the service of a project that academics might find more inspiring. Clarity of purpose would allow for greater differentiation between universities – research-intensives, balanced, teaching-focussed – and, more importantly, provide a more robust foundation for dealing with government and the new regulator, the OfS, as we enter the Brexit-era.

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