This article is more than 6 years old

How Advance HE can support the sector in interesting times

Born itself of change and reconfiguration, does Advance HE hold the key to thriving in a radically different environment? Alison Johns makes the case.
This article is more than 6 years old

Alison Johns is chief executive of Advance HE

In changing and challenging times the role of the sector agency is a curious one. We must listen, respond and adapt. It is equally important that we offer the long view and a wide lens which can be useful in both navigating and anticipating the road ahead for those we serve. And to act as a knowledge bank: a resource of expertise and skills that can be drawn on quickly as old themes re-emerge, and new challenges appear.

We understand we need to put institutions at the forefront of what we do and in supporting them we can also instigate, support and evaluate really long term systemic change, focusing on sector wide challenges for the good of the individual institution, student, and staff member.

In changing and challenging times we can and must change too.

Advance HE, the new agency formed from the Equality Challenge Unit, Higher Education Academy, and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, will retain and strengthen that long view, knowledge base and focus on strategic change in equality and diversity, learning and teaching, and leadership and governance. But we will also be more than a sum of our parts, drawing on our synergies so that we can provide support as institutions tackle those most intransigent issues, like differential student outcomes, and diversity in leadership.

Innovation and impact

We are extremely proud of the successes we have achieved with the sector to date. This week in Scotland we are holding our equalities conference on the theme of “innovation, change, impact” and indeed it has been fascinating to see how successful we can be when we work in partnership with universities and colleges, government and the third sector on long term achievements like the Scottish Gender Action Plan.

Across the UK, through our Athena SWAN charter activities, I am constantly impressed by the commitment, innovation, and hard work institutions put into addressing gender imbalances. We are now seeing real changes for staff, students, progression, and culture in terms of gender equality. Sharing the good practice we see has to be central to what Advance HE is about. Our newly merged operation will enable us not only to do this in a much more coordinated and synergistic way, we can also streamline and improve the underlying processes – freeing up institutions to direct more energy into the changes they want to make. Our growing database – as well as award schemes help to recognise the amazing good practice we see – shows that cross-cutting, difficult institution work can and does work for change.

For individuals, supported by their institutions, the success of programmes and schemes like Aurora, Diversifying Leadership, and HEA Fellowships ripple into and across individual lives. This acts as a constant reminder to us that “the HE sector” is its people, and supporting them to be the best professionals they can be – to make their institutions the best they can be – is a key part of our remit.

Effective and more diverse governance will become increasingly important in a world of new regulatory approaches. It is very clear that this is high on institutional agendas and will come under ever increasing scrutiny. A key area of concern will be demonstrating value for money and currently we are working with eight institutions piloting “integrated (financial) reporting” and developing practices which work for higher education.

What next?

Coming together at this time of so many changes – new regulators, new bodies, Brexit, new technologies – is a unique opportunity for Advance HE. We’re are now consulting on our future strategy and membership proposition and we are determined to listen, we want to understand how and when we can be of most use: and we’re also ready to continue leading where we can feel we can add most value.

Bringing our expertise together from across the three former agencies, we see the potential for real impact on issues like teaching excellence for all, on degree attainment gaps, and ensuring our leaders educators and knowledge-producers reflect their student cohorts and wider society.

Race equality is just one example of something that we all have been working on for some time now and we feel we are, with you, on the brink of some real change. Our work on diversifying leadership – we are delighted to be running our third national BME diversity summit next month, on inclusive learning and teaching, and our Race Equality Charter – now at a record 40 members – is designed to support institutions in their work to address an issue long-known and – supported by excellent academic research – increasingly understood. This is an area where Advance HE has so much potential to support real impact, and to rapidly share best practice of initiatives that prove effective.

Piloting through the policy world

We will of course be working closely with the sector to respond to those steers and requirements set out by regulators and new legislation. We’re particularly pleased to hear from the new Office for Students about their continuing focus on equality of opportunity in student success and attainment.

We want to make sure that we help institutions pick out the common threads of policy priorities and translate those into institutional change.

We’ve faced the “student as consumer” narrative for many years now, buoyed by discussion of “value for money”, and a continuing focus on “excellence” in part driven by competition: in teaching, but also in research.

These narratives come into play with the heightened sense right now of social justice, and of demands for safe and inclusive spaces for all. Alongside this we are faced with the challenges of Brexit and the possibility of “re-drawing” our sector borders and the challenge to our global conversations?

We can see the key themes in all of these priorities being a focus on fair and equal outcomes for all groups of staff and students; supportive and safe environments that maximise participation and innovation; and leadership and governance which reflects our local and international communities.

We aim not only to work with the sector to find the best ways for them to respond to these issues, but also to think further ahead: asking about scalability and transferability of initiatives, and shining a light on gaps in both the conversations and the data. Yes we want to help with a great experience for students, and we also need be clear about how the staff experience relates to this. Yes there’s a focus on attainment, and we also want to keep an eye on engagement, progression, and non-completions and “leaky pipelines”. We want to make sure that during all this change no one falls by the wayside: we want to think about the mature or postgraduate student alongside the undergraduate, help staff early in their careers as well as developing new and future leaders.

We’re excited to embrace this question and maintain our focus on the long term aims of our institutions. To do so we will facilitate collaboration, working in partnership and connection where this is helpful to learn and share our successes. Throughout these changes we will listen, we will support and we will continue our mission to support both institutions and individuals develop inspiring and creative solutions to personal and strategic challenge and to make the sector an incredibly proud place to work and study. We are, after all, a sector which embraces learning, and change is just another chance for discovery.

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