Tuesday, 13 March 2012

What do universities do for us?

It seems to be quite fashionable just now to think of universities in terms of their contribution to the economy, and this can be done in a number of ways. Thus we can start by simply viewing the university as a large employer, generating incomes for its local community (wage payments, mainly), supporting local demand for goods and services in general - retailing, diverse other local services, etc. This is all very familiar and perfectly valid, though in most respects it doesn't really treat a university as anything different from any other large local employer. Yet somehow, we do often like to think of the university as a different sort of 'beast'.

Besides local income generation, universities also teach students at all levels, so that one of their principal 'outputs' (if I may put it that way), is a flow of graduates who move on to work in all areas of the labour force, both in the UK and overseas. Typically (on average, and varying between disciplines), graduates earn a wage premium over non-graduates, and by assessing this carefully we can arrive at an additional benefit of the university. In effect, we take the view that the university contributes to the process of making people more productive in the workforce.

Through their innovation and knowledge transfer activities, universities can also benefit local and national firms in many different ways. How effectively they do this will depend both on their skills in building local links and business partnerships, and on their main subject areas. Moreover, to the extent that this aspect of a university's activities is beneficial to business, we need to be thinking in terms of quite long-term, and usually highly uncertain benefits.

One way or another, though, all of the above is about economic benefits - no bad thing, but surely not the full story!

And recently, I've been reading a fascinating book that puts forward a much broader view of what universities are all about. This is Stefan Collini's book, What are Universities for? (Penguin Books, 2012). He argues forcefully, and I think rightly, for the value of intellectual investigations per se, taking the view that understanding our world, and helping others to do so, is both a socially valuable activity and the mark of a civilised society. He acknowledges, of course, that whatever universities do they have to live within their budgets; but at the same time, he argues that we should be far less defensive than we often are, and should not feel we always have to defend what we do in the university in terms of its putative economic benefits.

Given his starting point, it is not too surprising to find that Collini is no supporter of the modern idea of the 'student as customer', since he doesn't see the university as evolving into a new form of supermarket. Nor is he a fan of the modern audit and accountability ethos that besets our universities, as is evident from his remarks about the beginnings of research assessment back in the 1980s: 'This was a key step towards the all-devouring audit culture that has since so signally contributed to making universities less efficient places in which to think and teach.' (p34). In the same vein, Collini is very critical of our current approaches to making teaching more accountable through setting aims and objectives and the like, arguing that it tends to replace academic judgement with form filling and formal procedures.

Overall, he urges us to see our universities as custodians of an important part of our scientific, intellectual and artistic heritage, and valuing this properly calls for a wider and much more long-term perspective than is implicit in the current tendency to focus on the narrow economic benefits. I agree.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Thinking about university strategy

Like all large organisations these days, universities periodically spend some time reflecting on their strategy, and my own university is just now undertaking such an exercise. It seems to be an opportunity for a university to think about its strengths and weaknesses; to think where it wants to focus its energies in the coming years - meaning both subject areas, levels of study, and market segments (home and EU, attracting overseas students, full-time vs. part-time, distance learning, overseas campuses, etc.); to determine the most appropriate comparator institutions (against which we see ourselves directly competing); and to make sure that whatever we do, we do it within budget. Taken together, this is all quite demanding - strategy is not an easy business!

Given the uncertainties of life, a strategy is never going to take the form of a set of precise instructions for people within the institution to follow, it will be more like a framework, a set of guiding principles that shape how we think about the institution, and how we see it moving forward.

Ideally, too, a decent strategy needs to avoid the platitudes and management-speak that are so pervasive nowadays, aiming instead to set out a small number of quite concrete and understandable goals, while identifying the key constraints and challenges that have to be overcome in order to achieve them, or at least get the institution shifting in the right direction. If that can be done, there is a good chance that staff will see the strategy as something they can understand, relate to and support, which is surely at least half the battle. There is nothing worse than a strategy full of abstract and general notions that are neither understandable nor operational. So I hope my own institution will try to be both ambitious and very practical when our strategy is finally settled (in a few months' time).

As for the content of a strategy, it obviously has to address the main areas of a university's business, namely teaching (or, as we often term it more broadly nowadays, the student experience), research, links with business and the community, and the international dimension. In each area, we should be playing to our strengths, while differentiating ourselves from neighbouring institutions (it would be rather foolish for all the Edinburgh-based universities to end up looking pretty much the same, for instance) and enhancing our position in relation to our principal competitors.

Doing all this within budget is the real challenge, not least because a high proportion of UK universities, including my own, have already delayed lots of maintenance and refurbishment spending in recent years in order to avoid building up excessive deficits and debt. For a while this is absolutely fine and wholly understandable. But sooner or later there has to be some serious spending to upgrade facilities and services, otherwise the basic institutional infrastructure slowly runs down - buildings simply become shabby, and fail to deliver services of the needed quality. Finding the funds to redress such deficiencies and, more positively, investing to provide a wholly new level of service quality, will be the real measure of success of any new strategy.

Then there is the awkward matter of the changing higher educational landscape. Should we, for example, think of most of our provision in terms of on-campus, conventional, full-time degree programmes any longer, or should we be thinking more radically in terms of different modes and patterns of teaching/education, with new mixes of on campus tuition and distance learning, intermingled with massive use of IT to deliver material across the internet, to diverse devices (e-readers, mobile phones, PCs, etc.). And if we do move in such a direction, is it what students themselves really want, does it work as a model of education, what would it cost, and what would it imply for nature and quality of the overall student experience?

These seem to me to be important, interesting, and timely questions. I wonder how either my own institution, and many others, will answer them in the coming years.

Heading south

Well, as it turned out, my colleague and I did win the contract from the EU to provide some economic advice to the Falkland Islands Government (mentioned in the post of February 14th), so it seems that we shall soon be heading south to visit the penguins - and to get on with the work we're contracted to do. Our plan, subject to various contractual issues being sorted out rapidly, is to be out in the Islands for a couple of weeks just before Easter. Hopefully we'll manage that.

More news before long - possibly including a picture of some penguins!