Wicked problems: are we fighting a losing battle to protect the diversity of HE provision?

Exceptionalism needs to be the rule

Sue Rigby, Bath Spa University

How would you build a diverse university sector, that addresses the local learning and civic needs of each area of the UK, and of each student, while celebrating international reach and research impact? Answer: by the opposite approach to the one we are currently taking. My wicked problem is a tendency towards one simplistic and idealised, “perfect” idea of a university and a regulatory landscape that struggles with outliers.

When I say perfect, of course, I mean a university that, through strong and robust regulation keeps on track to deliver high graduate income, highly selective entry, degree programmes that fit CAH codes, teaching methods susceptible to audit by QAA, while being financially robust, civically responsive and with international traction in league tables.

During our TEF discussions, in which I chaired the Natural Sciences panel, we agonised about how to evaluate an atypical university against these metrics. Could the Open University, for instance, achieve a gold rating, if most of its graduates were already mid-career? Was its drop out rate a mark of failure or of success? And that is before we tried to reconcile specialist institutions, private providers, colleges; the list goes on. Each one a problem, but surely in reality, each part of the solution to the challenge of an appropriate range of higher education for a diverse set of student needs.

A university strategy that drives it into exceptionality, or, I would say, increases the diversity of the sector, risks becoming difficult to regulate. Why does this matter? Well, if regulation is risk-based, risk is most easily assessed when a thing is a bit like other things. Degree awarding powers are given to young versions of standard universities. At a political level as well, it is easier to talk about universities as though they are all the same, than recognise the diversity which helps students curate their own futures to meet their own aspirations and goals.

If we want diversity, we need to celebrate distinctiveness, clarity of purpose, originality of strategy, and above all, embrace a level of risk. And as a society we do want it, at least at the transactional level that we are currently exploring through apprenticeships, distance-degrees, T-levels and the myriad of other initiatives that a perfect university is also being asked to accommodate. Pity they can’t; let’s build a university ecosystem that can.

The market is reducing choice

Andrew Hargreaves, dataHE

In a full market environment, the rules of supply and demand play out freely. People get what they want. But if, like universities, your interests extend beyond only financial matters, how do we manage our HE ecosystem so that the giant feet of market forces don’t trample all over the ladybirds of supply diversity?

The data is clear. Some study areas are under increasing recruitment pressure, largely due to the subject preferences shown by undergraduate applicants, whilst others enjoy ever increasing levels of interest and demand. This effect is being felt inside institutions, where leaders are keen to offer a fully comprehensive portfolio, and between institutions, where small specialist providers are being outgunned in the war for economies of scale. As you tour the country, as we do, the recruitment outlook for some subject areas is bleak, recruitment volumes look unsustainable and the cost to income ratios must be eye wateringly worrying for those trying to build and manage an operational budget.

You don’t have to be anti-marketisation to ensure there is a diversity of supply, for the good of the consumer and for the broader ecosystem. Look no further than the very competitive, market-driven electricity market. The market has six large operators, who could crush the ladybirds. And yet, the market has over 70 small providers, many of who are flourishing. How? Through incentives and proportionate regulation. Ofgem, the sector regulator, has supply diversity at the heart of its regulation. It wants to protect consumer choice. It uses both incentives and regulation to encourage the large retailers and the System Operator(s) to facilitate choice and efficiency for smaller retailers. It doesn’t prevent small retailers from going out of business, many do, instead it focuses its efforts on ensuring that consumers do not lose supply, and that they transition to a new supplier without friction.

Now I know you’re going to tell me that this is a pointless comparison, HE is much more complex. Perhaps, but we can learn a lot from market environments which are much more established than ours. We can innovate, creating the right incentives and regulations to ensure we protect the diversity of our ecosystem; diversity in areas of study, and institution type. Failure will hollow out provision in our world leading HE sector, potentially leaving society and employers bereft of skills and thinking, and in the longer-run risking the competitiveness of our workforce.

The sector is facing a wicked issue, that of business economics, but it has an opportunity, and arguably duty, to build resilience. A joint response to cost right-sizing inside the institution, and powerful incentives for sharing costly services and overheads, might, just might, allow the ladybirds to survive.

One response to “Wicked problems: are we fighting a losing battle to protect the diversity of HE provision?

  1. What you’re both suggesting here is that the sector needs an intelligent, student-focused regulator who will appreciate the importance of diversity, and the value it brings (beyond a simple salary check). I don’t, honestly, see any sign of one.

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