Chris Husbands: “most politicians look at the sector and think they are looking into a mirror”

As Sheffield Hallam's vice chancellor prepares to move on, he speaks to Debbie McVitty about his experience of policy influencing and the need for creative leadership in higher education

It is hard to imagine the UK higher education sector without Chris Husbands in it.

The vice chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University is set to retire from the university at the end of the calendar year. A former secondary school teacher, onetime director of the Institute of Education when it was an independent entity (it’s now part of University College London), and chair of the Teaching Excellence Framework, Husbands is unusual among university leaders in having academic expertise in education policy and practice. Perhaps that is why he has been such a consistent voice in public higher education policy commentary, even in a time when doing so appears to go against the grain of most vice chancellors’ preferences.

Retirement will be odd for Chris too – when we meet he jokes that for the last forty years his days have consisted of, “Get up, make a sandwich, cycle to work, work, eat a sandwich, work some more, cycle home, work, then get up and do the same thing again.” But he’s not planning on disappearing entirely from public life or higher education – and I doubt anyone will be surprised to see him continuing to play an active role in sector activity and policy.

A change in responsibilities may well be welcome, too – after the Covid pandemic, the sector saw a flurry of vice chancellor departures, as leaders activated delayed plans for retirement, making for a stressful final stretch. The funding pressures universities are now facing are placing additional demands on university leaders to develop the strategies and make the difficult decisions required when there is scant prospect of a cash injection any time soon.

Managing expectations

Chris is no stranger to making the tough calls – there are tensions at Sheffield Hallam as there are elsewhere over decisions about staffing and investment. But reflecting on his experience and the landscape higher education leaders are facing, Chris is convinced that the sector must accept the need for change in the status quo.

“In the context of a country that is basically broke, where the public purse is shot, and health, social care, the legal system, even fixing potholes, are all further up the list than HE, we can’t expect to be given more simply to carry on doing the things we are doing,” he says. If doing the same things is no longer financially viable, then university leaders must step up with new ideas for how their institution can achieve its mission in different ways.

Most university leaders have an academic or public sector background, and while many will recall periods in which the sector was underfunded, particularly during the nineties, few will have had the experience of having been obliged to confront significant financial challenge while in a leadership position. Neither of the traditional sources of relief – investment of public funds or private investment through tuition fees – are looking promising right now.

The impact of rising costs and funding constraints is not only felt in universities – students’ struggles with money are also to some extent undermining the core higher education student offer. Chris says:

The challenge of cost of living for students is fundamental and is driving enormous disparities in student experience. Materially well-off students are able to enjoy an engagement with HE which we could call the “full-fat” experience and those from materially deprived homes are doing ever more part-time work.

Chris suggests that institutions will need to start thinking a lot more about their “operating model” – a phrase that he has only recently started to hear a lot more around the sector. “Very few strategic plans have any serious realism about money,” he says. “We could learn from the private sector in focusing much more on what our resource is, and how we are going to fund our ambitions. It is obviously not about profit but it is about shaping strategy in relation to the values that drive your organisation – that is the space for creative leadership.”

All this sounds rather stark, and it would be easier to get bogged down in making the numbers stack up and forget the bigger picture. Chris imagines “the gap between economics, and the culture and impact of an institution” as the space that “creative” leadership can fill – focusing not only on material realities, but on the “intellectual, social and cultural transformation work” of higher education. Keeping hold of the importance of that work and why it matters is what may make the difference to an institution’s ability to thrive in the difficult years ahead.

The conditions for policy influence

As a university leader who has been very active in the public policy debate, I’m curious what Chris sees as the optimal relationship with politicians and policymakers – and whether all that influencing work was worth it. As vice chancellor of Sheffield Hallam he has invested in expertise in policy influence, and the university is the host of the cross-sector Civic University Network. Chris says he is “proud of my colleagues who have positioned Sheffield Hallam as a source of advice in the sector.”

Coming to terms with the idea that political influence can’t be simply making an argument for more resource requires building a meaningful relationship with policymakers – locally and nationally. A shared understanding of the importance of higher education can’t be assumed. Chris says: “I sometimes get the sense from some of my peers that they feel they ought to be valued more than they are by policymakers. Ultimately you have to put the hard yards in – keep on making the case regionally, and to national politicians.”

What Chris seems to be talking about is developing the kind of trust in an influencing relationship that can make space for more serious policy analysis. “It doesn’t matter who we’re talking about or what political perspective they’re coming from, most politicians look at the sector and think they are looking into a mirror,” Chris says. “The sector can often be a bit too tempted to reflect that back – whether it’s productivity, apprenticeships, teaching quality – we say ’we can do that for you.’ It needs a bit more stepping back and saying ‘what is the proposition here, what are we really good at?’ and then having a robust discussion with politicians.”

Far from stepping back from public debate, then, university leaders may want to think about how they intensify their policy engagement strategies in light of the political circumstances. For a sector that has at times felt like something of a political football, and with limited prospect of short-term reward from policy engagement, some may be strongly tempted to downgrade their efforts and batten down hatches. But whatever the future shape of the economy and politics, higher education will always remain of interest to policymakers.

One of the benefits of a long career is that it gives perspective on the larger trends that are shaping policy beyond the ebb and flow of single parliaments or political periods. As he prepares to hand over the reins of university leadership, Chris remains enormously optimistic about the future for higher education.

“Higher education is a phenomenal sector – diverse, interesting, impactful – and there is a lot of money and hope tied up in it,” he says. “Countries that are serious about succeeding in economic, culture, and society terms are investing in higher education. It is not a silver bullet but it is one of the major tools government has to drive long term economic and social success.”

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