Integrated thinking and reporting: telling a different story of HE

In recent months, Wonkhe has traced how the narrative about universities and students has gone wrong and how the sector has lost its ability to tell a coherent story about itself.

On the whole, our universities continue to deliver excellence in education, research and engagement, but our collective ability to tell a story that makes sense of the world around us – and connects emotionally with our stakeholders – has gone missing. It has been described as acrisis of storytelling”.

At the same time, a group of institutions has been working to pool their expertise in understanding and articulating how they create value for students, staff, and society as a whole. Coordinated by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (now Advance HE), the project is the latest step in a journey initiated by BUFDG in 2016 to support integrated thinking and reporting in higher education.

Could integrated thinking and reporting provide the right toolkit for institutions to communicate more effectively what they do? And could the toolkit help the sector in telling a different story from the increasingly dominant narrative based on a limited definition of value (for money)?

What is integrated thinking and reporting?

Integrated reporting is an evolution of corporate reporting adopted by over 1,500 organisations across the globe. It’s overseen by the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), which is a coalition that promotes better communication about value creation, recognising that value cannot be measured in narrow financial terms alone.

Integrated thinking in higher education is about developing a deeper understanding of how a university creates value not just for itself, but for others – and should be embedded within strategic planning. It can change the way a university describes what it does, facilitating different discussions (both internally and externally) about its purpose and its plans for the long-term.

In short, integrated thinking and reporting has the potential to change the way universities describe and use their resources – not just their financial inputs – to the benefit of all stakeholders.

A survey last year of finance directors at UK universities found that 80% were working to adopt at least some of the principles of integrated reporting, however, just 16% were convinced enough by the benefits to work towards full adoption. While the language of integrated reporting has found its way into annual reports and accounts, the wider benefits of integrated thinking have taken longer to find traction among colleagues.

Can it help your university?

The journey towards integrated thinking and reporting is one that can require commitment across the senior leadership team. At my own institution, the journey began in 2016 when a BUFDG review of our financial statements stimulated an internal discussion about the opportunities that integrated thinking and reporting could bring. It was recognised early that it would require greater emphasis on inter-disciplinary working and joined-up thinking across campus locations, and between academic and professional services teams.

Sharing our journey with other participants has enabled us to reflect on what we’ve achieved in terms of publishing an Integrated Annual Report, but also challenged us to embed integrated thinking. As a first step, we have encouraged key budget holders to think more holistically about all the resources available to them that are required in delivering long-term sustainability.

Our next step is to build integrated thinking into a new “University Vision”. This will include a placed-based strategy that provides a focus for initiatives to drive economic and social benefits in our city and region. As an example, it will bring together what we hope will be a compelling narrative about how the university works to support innovation, productivity, and social justice – and how it uses its global reach to increase the international connectivity of North East England.

From the shared experience of the participants in the Advance HE project, it can take up to three years for integrated thinking and reporting to be fully adopted within a university, and it might not be for everyone. For those who have made the effort, however, the prospect of a more joined-up story of value creation has never felt more important.

Creating value in higher education

Among the many attempts to redefine value in the higher education sector, there remains a prevailing narrative that value can be measured by the level of resources obtained (teaching hours, graduate salary, etc.) for the least amount of money. Students quite legitimately ask for evidence that they are getting value from their university fees, but they also look for value from the opportunities offered by being part of a university community.

For civic universities, which exist for the public benefit to advance education, learning and research, the separation of the word “value” from the words “for money” has been extremely difficult. The recently convened Civic University Commission has been formed in response to a perceived failure within the sector to demonstrate its value to both students and taxpayers in cities and regions across the country.

Integrated thinking and reporting provides a framework for universities to communicate a compelling and joined-up narrative about economic and social value, often generated from place-based initiatives. The institutions participating are looking forward to sharing their experiences to date on the 11th September, at a national higher education event.

Perhaps the Advance HE work on integrated thinking and reporting will find favour with the Office for Students, as it has with other regulators from around the world. Here’s hoping for better … ahem … integration.

To find out more about the Advance HE Integrated Thinking and Reporting project go to Integrated Thinking and Reporting or contact Kim Ansell (kim.ansell@advance-he.ac.uk).

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