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What do we mean when we say “sector leading”?

Universities compete fiercely on a range of metrics, from student numbers to diversity. Hillary Gyebi-Ababio warns them not to lose sight of the concrete issues they face
This article is more than 4 years old

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio is the vice president for higher education at NUS.

We all want to be a success. So, the notion of being a leader in a university that is “sector-leading” in something is a badge worn with pride by senior management teams.

They’re often proud of the innovative work they’ve been recognised for – and keen to communicate it. But whilst this could be an indicator that a university has gone “above and beyond”, it raises the question of whether the motivation is competition – being the first to achieve a change – or whether it’s a genuine indication of the intention to continuously be a better and more inclusive place.

The use of the term “sector-leading” is not unusual in some spheres. It is often used to indicate the efforts of a player pushing ahead of others, and a bit of competition never hurt anyone. But while there ought to be recognition given to a university that exceeds sector expectations, it is worth senior managers (and sector bodies) thinking about the effect this culture has on the motivation and appetite for change in their institutions – specifically in areas of policy on issues that require careful attention.

Care is required

Equality, diversity, and inclusion is a key area where universities ought to be extra-thoughtful about what is driving the changes that are being implemented.

A barrier that many activists face when pushing for change in their universities is not necessarily that there is a reluctance to see the change being proposed, but that in comparison to other priorities, there are less obvious incentives or obligations for the hassle and investment involved.

The incentive for being intentional and proactive about driving the kind of change that challenges the status quo should focus on an urgency within an institution to break down the barriers that students and staff face in creating a safe and inclusive space for them to thrive.

But too often, the prospect of being the “first”, or a “sector-leader”, sounds like a bigger incentive than the more moral arguments for change. And the suspicion is that it is projects that bring kudos to a leader, rather than those that drive real change, that are given the time and money.

Regulatory requirements

The role of the OfS adds another dimension to this. It talks about wanting universities to do better, but student officers around the country report that often its influence acts in reverse to that described above. The fear of breaching a condition of registration, dropping a TEF medal or losing money leads institutions to “play it safe”, focus relentlessly on TEF metrics (to the detriment of things not counted or measured) and often forget why we’re there at all. I can’t be the only student officer that has noticed much more of a focus on “assessment and feedback” (in the TEF) than “learning community” (not in the TEF) – a problem given the link between community and mental health.

Much has been said so far about the way the TEF focuses minds on the things that are in it. Let’s hope that Dame Shirley Pearce’s review picks up the “unintended consequences” and that OfS seeks to minimise them in the year ahead.

Winner winner

Then there’s the issue of competition itself. Most people focus on this bit of OfS’ role:

the need to encourage competition between English higher education providers in connection with the provision of higher education where that competition is in the interests of students and employers

But many of us – including, it seems, OfS itself – seem to forget the other half of that sentence in the Higher Education and Research Act:

…while also having regard to the benefits for students and employers resulting from collaboration between such providers.

Competition for student numbers has left so many of us involved in the leadership, governance and management of universities in “constant consciousness” of the impact that a programme or decision might have on reputation. At best it has a chilling effect on bravery or investment with obvious risks or without clear reputational returns. At worst, the need to recruit drives almost all decision making.

Being responsive to student applicants and their parents is one thing. Letting their aggregate desires and fears drive decision making in a university is dangerous. If we pay senior managers for anything, it’s to resist these forces being dominant – not to prove to a governing body that you’re the best at delivering on them.

Challenge of change

As the sector thinks about how to respond to the new government, and the coming decade, huge issues remain unresolved. Where and how the sector intends to expand to meet demand for HE without killing communities is one. Tackling deep racial inequalities in the middle of a nasty, anti-PC culture war is another. We need real answers on climate change, to find a way to tackle the costs of student accommodation, and find a way to incentivise the development and improvement of teaching that commands more support than the TEF does now.

To get there, we need creativity, humility and collaboration – and that means that the idea of being a “sector leading” institution needs to go. This type of discourse fails both students and staff. What should replace it should be a new, more genuine sentiment – focused on what we want to collectively achieve. It means less talk of being “world class” and more on what we’re doing for the world. It means less chat about the “graduate premium” and more about what our graduates will contribute to society.

Above all, in the coming decade, it won’t be enough to lead in the sector if other institutions, as well as your own, are failing the most vulnerable.

One response to “What do we mean when we say “sector leading”?

  1. ‘But too often, the prospect of being the “first”, or a “sector-leader”, sounds like a bigger incentive than the more moral arguments for change’.

    Totally agree with this! Real, tangible improvement needs to be more important than being the ‘winner’.

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