Maybe the next restructuring regime should be more radical

Alan Sutherland considers innovations from other industries to generate creative thinking over the future of universities.

Now that there is an exams shambles to deal with, the original version of the Department for Education (DfE) “restructuring regime” may never actually see the light of day.

On reflection, it was an oddly petty list of grudges – a mixed bag of tabloid outrage that felt thrown together, from VC pay to “niche campaigns” in SUs.

More interesting was the lack of ambition over what we might call the “bundle” – insofar as the document essentially expected more of the same from any university requiring help, just with more of the corners rounded off. It would have helped stricken universities get back on their feet in much the same way that Kathy Bates did to James Caan in Misery.

I’m a long time whinger over the lack of innovation in universities – at the time when they had the money to innovate they felt they didn’t need to, but now when they do they don’t have the money.

It does seem bizarre that DfE was essentially looking for “scaled back business as usual” rather than some transformative effect. Where was the ambition that previous higher education reforms encompassed – which were going to usher in a raft of new innovative alternative providers, even if many of those that emerged did turn out to be based above a kebab shop in North London?

Considering approaches that the sector could appropriate from other industries may be helpful. So I’ve looked at some other innovations that we all take for granted and how they might be adapted to higher education.

Badge engineering

When is a VW Golf not a VW Golf? When it is an Audi A3 or Seat Leon. Badge engineering has been a mainstay tactic of the British car industry for years. Everyone knows the Mini, but what about the Austin Se7en, Riley Elf, or Wolsely Hornet? Same car, different badges – but most importantly different offerings and markets.

Given that the first universities were associated with their location, which then arguably become more famous as a result of the seat of learning; almost all universities have since become branded with their location. One wag once told me that only the great universities were named after a town not a county, but why persist with this at all? It is the thing that is least in the institutions control, yet it is the heart of their image. Why do we not focus on what one studies rather than where?

It is a bit like the NATO alphabet – everyone knows Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, but tends to freestyle afterwards, E for Euclidean. Likewise, if you were looking for a university to match your passion for Sport, Oceanography, or Vehicle Design, we can all think of the stand out examples – but what about economics, maths, or geography? This is where universities could create subject focussed institutions that concentrated research, teaching, and learning into a masterbrand that amplified their excellence or specialism in that field.

EasyUniversity

There was a time when an airline ticket from destination A to B was a certain price, no matter when you decided to fly. Then along came Southwestern in the US who started charging more for the convenient times, and less for the out of hours tickets.

This is our way of life now when it comes to capacity management. We think nothing now of picking our train time based on a trade off between convenience vs price – you want to go from London to Birmingham for £30? No problem, just set your alarm clock for 3am. This is the exact opposite to the university experience, where how much you pay is in no way related to what you use, or the cost to the institutions – it’s pay once, get (restricted) access to everything.

Capacity management on campus comes down to those who can, shall. If you can afford to live nearer campus you can have more flexibility over the use of resources. If you don’t have to work part time, you can spend more extra-curricular hours taking advantage of the university subsidised activities at your disposal. We are in a weird world where student A pays individually for student B, and student C gets to use something that student D cannot because of their own personal circumstances. This is beginning to be questioned in other comparable areas, like the license fee, and road charging – the move over time will be more “pay for what you get”, as well as “choice vs value”.

Would we ever see a university degree charged at £6000 but which offers online lectures only, additional fees for resists, and no access to the Library between 10am and 6pm? How about a part time degree only taught outside the standard term time when the lecture theatres are empty? Private accommodation providers already allow student residents to choose from a seemingly inexhaustible series of options for their stay, while the university still has one size for all when it comes to your student experience. Can – and should – that approach survive?

The white label

If you want to change mobile phone provider, there are lots to chose from in the UK, only four of which however run a real mobile network. Tesco may sell mobile phones, but they don’t own a single transmitter, all they do is buy capacity from the “big four”. This means that the ultimate barrier to entering the phone market is removed – the cost of building huge transmitters across the country.

So what would it take to build a new UK university? Just like building a phone network, you would need a crippling amount of capital to find a site and build not just the teaching facilities but the support systems needed and expected by students to provide a halfway decent university experience. However, do you actually need to do this in today’s environment?

There are enough university towns with spare accommodation space, as well as universities with the capacity to take more students. Imagine if your degree took you round the country (or even the globe), experiencing the campus and the city, with a diverse range of tuitions from across the spectrum.

Just like the Open University used “dead air” on the BBC network, so too could a new White Label University appropriate the best of the sector from spare capacity around the country to create a unique and new delivery without the associated capital investments.

Read the room

Some of these would work, some wouldn’t. In any case, I would caution us all against a kneejerk, defensive and dismissive response. The fact that student careers, welfare and counselling are run from entirely separate, regional organisations in Norway might be related to history and culture. It might also be a great idea.

We have to accept that there is a growing frustration that universities have remained largely unchanged in structure and style for decades. This manifests in misguided headlines and malformed policy announcements. It is a general feeling of “something must be done” and each year new headline statistics are revealed to try and push students down particular routes as consumers.

The problem is, this is hammering a square peg into a round hole. Unistats became “Discoveruni” which is like choosing car insurance, and WhatUni continues to act like a University Trip Advisor. They are novel and marginally interesting, but largely pointless when students have one choice of fee at one location that they are pretty much stuck with for the next three years.

There has been much talk of “innovation” in the pivot of March, April and May. Maybe next time round we should innovate positively without being forced to by a global pandemic.

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