How higher education can make the weather

Last week GuildHE’s annual conference set out to imagine the future of UK higher education.

Reflecting on our discussions (and that I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined quite what would happen at our conference dinner) I think there was one unifying theme. Whether talking about the higher education sector in 2030, inclusion, the climate crisis, regulation or the likely post-election political climate we kept coming back to one word: agency. The capacity of universities individually, and sector bodies collectively, to make the weather.

Sector agency

At times it doesn’t feel like that. Faced with a powerful regulator, institutions can be forgiven for feeling that the only agency they have is to ask “how high” whenever the OfS says jump. But while good for a laugh among friends, we recognized that would be an existential mistake. UK universities have been so successful globally precisely because they are not creatures of government, of central bureaucracies. Autonomy and agency are key to imagining and making a successful future.

To work successfully within the new regulatory regime, there are things that have to be kept constantly in focus. Institutions need to have the interests of students driving everything they do. They need to understand their data and manage risk in a complex environment. And they need to ensure their governing bodies have the skills, confidence and knowledge of the business and of the regulatory framework to take strategic decisions, to remain agile and to avoid becoming so risk averse that conformity and monoculture rather than innovation and diversity become the norm.

Sector bodies like GuildHE need to be able to take a well-informed view of how regulation is working in practice so they are able to give constructive feedback and challenge if necessary. For example, how does our members’ experience of the OfS compare with the requirements of the Regulators’ Code? Does the regulation avoid imposing unnecessary burdens? Is it proportionate to institutional size? Do institutions feel able to seek advice without fear of triggering enforcement action?

A social licence

As well as meeting formal conditions of registration, as well as doing great teaching, research, and knowledge exchange – we recognised that for a successful future higher education institutions need a strong social licence to operate. When that licence is weak, universities are much more likely to face criticism and much less likely to hear powerful voices raised in their defence. So we talked about strengthening the social licence to operate. Reinvigorating the mutual trust, pride and sense of value between any higher education institution and the many communities that sustain it. Its place – town, city, region – and the people who live there; its scholarly community of students, staff and alumni and its wider, diverse communities of interest.

Talking about engagement and inclusivity we challenged ourselves to imagine and build happy, healthy institutions; places where the inequalities of privilege expressed in the gender pay gap, the BAME awarding gap, the lack of diversity in senior teams and governing bodies are properly addressed. And only we can do that. It is nobody’s agency but ours.

Sustainable futures

Running constantly through our conference discussions was the knowledge that whatever future we imagined had to be sustainable. As well as being a core business priority for leaders we heard that not doing more would be “a criminal act”. As educators, researchers and innovators with business and the third sector, higher education institutions have the potential to be uniquely powerful contributors to tackling the climate emergency.

Discussions covered the huge value of tools like the NUS’s Responsible Futures accreditation and the Sustainability Leadership Scorecard. It is also about engaging with, and responding to the values and priorities of students. As one speaker said, it is because of students and the school climate strikers that institutions are having these conversations and making the commitment to change

Immediately following our conference, GuildHE along with Universities UK, the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges, the UK Student Climate Network, students unions and the Association of Colleges launched the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education.

Working with our members to encourage sector wide responses to the climate emergency is at the heart of GuildHE’s new strategy that we launched at the conference. It sets out our vision for 2025 to be the advocate of choice for smaller and specialist institutions and for our members being acknowledged as a crucial part of a diverse higher education sector that drives cultural, social and economic development throughout the UK. And reflecting the values of our members it argues for higher education that is ethical, inclusive and creative, that always engages students in the decisions that affect their experience and that is held to account for its contribution to wide societal values, not narrow economic returns.

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