Having had a few moments on the sidelines to draw breath, and now rejoining the fray as a consultant, I want to share a couple of perspectives from my new vantage point – seen through the lenses of a former vice chancellor and regulator.
At present, there is a lot of time occupied by a discussion about value for money (VfM). This is understandable when fees are effectively frozen but costs are rising in the midst of a political debate about value for students and the taxpayer. Obviously, this was always going to be an area fraught with definitional issues and contested views. It is not for me to define the policy position, but I am happy to say that I see no contradiction between creating value for the student and value for the taxpayer; they are not mutually exclusive agendas.
Higher education institutions have always had to balance agendas requiring a nuanced understanding of the policy dynamics and institutional context, drivers and priorities. Some institutions choose to be responsive to the policy agendas once formulated and therefore react once the position is clearer, whereas others seek proactively to gain market position by anticipating shifts and boldly leaping in the foreshadowed direction.
There will also always be some who see widening participation (WP) as the “price of doing business”, some who see it as a moral obligation, and others whose institutional survival is critically linked to WP by virtue of their locality and histories. However, there is another position being adopted by some institutions which see WP as a commercial opportunity as well as a social, moral and economic imperative. I think those which are proactive in their view of this agenda will gain the ascendency. This next academic year will be one where proactivity will be particularly valuable.
Irrespective of the approach, the new regulatory framework is explicitly looking at efficiencies and effectiveness as part of the VfM agenda. I concur that this is a sound policy position as the work of social inclusion and social mobility in higher education is far from complete.
In keeping with this theme, it is my view that institutions would be wise to focus on the efficiencies associated with the deployment of WP resources. The issue of funds and payments made by universities is already under the spotlight in other domains, and I see no reason why the sizeable investments in WP will not be subject to deeper scrutiny – and indeed sanctions – as well.
Some institutions are responding that they don’t need to concern themselves with how they invest WP resources, only whether they hit their outcome targets. This is unwise. Cleary every manager knows that outcomes are a direct result of a well-functioning programme logic: inputs used to create and deliver effective activity or outputs, in sufficient volume. The focus on evaluation in recent times should be showing institutions, broadly, what works in terms of the “right” activities; now I would urge there needs to be a focus on the quality and efficiency of delivery, including the capabilities within the three key areas: systems and infrastructures; staffing and leadership; and strategy design, translation and implementation across the whole student journey.
Showing your work
Institutions will do themselves a great service in any VfM debate, both at the institutional and the sector levels, if they can prove that they are investing funds well, with a clear focus on how they are measuring their institutional investment, performance and progress. This needs to occur not only in the end outcome of enrolment, graduation and employment but along the journey from the early years of school onwards.
The creation of value, irrespective of how, and at what point in the student journey it is measured, requires diligent effort and progressive management. Developing and delivering the right combination of interventions based on sound evaluation is paramount. Utilising the resources efficiently requires attention to how much resource is required to develop, market, deliver and evaluate interventions. This is part of the case for providing value for the taxpayer. Institutions can only argue the case that they are utilising their allocations well if they can prove it. So I would see value in an increased focus on internal performance metrics to support the management of WP programmes.
So as a word of gratuitous advice, and to emphasise my point, it is not for the regulator to tell institutions how to manage and measure progress. That has always been the responsibility of autonomous institutions, but with a continued focus on measuring outcomes, and more powers available to the regulator, it would seem to be an opportune time for institutions to review their methods of monitoring and managing process and progress, well before the regulator does.
A joint opportunity
Delivering on the twin agendas of regulatory compliance and the pragmatic agenda of institutional performance (which should strive beyond compliance, and focus on value for the whole institution) should be occupying the minds of senior executives contemporaneously. Achieving both in a mutually beneficial way is a far more useful approach than treating them as separate agendas.
This is an opportunity on the table, at a time when the market picture means institutions need to identify and leverage all opportunities available. Taking the reins and running the ruler over effectiveness and efficiencies in terms of institution-led performance assessment, as the regulator also works its way through its first year on the regulator-led compliance assessment agenda, should be a “no-brainer” at this point.