Is UK HE lagging behind the global race?

This year’s annual survey of Vice-chancellors and report by PA Consulting has just been published – and for colleagues at Staffordshire, it’s always good to read the work of Mike Boxall, who presented his ideas on Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies at our Leadership Conference last year.

This year’s report, “Lagging behind: are UK universities falling behind in the global innovation race”  takes a different approach – and looks at innovation in HE, and which developments in teaching and learning are seen as important.

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So, our VCs think that the UK is lagging behind in every major area of innovation, and propose the following as the reasons for this:

  1. deep seated conservatism of university cultures
  2. constraints of inflexible organisational structures
  3. fragmented and tentative nature of change initiatives
  4. perceived lack of incentives for innovation
  5. improved confidence in resilience of sector
  6. widely held views that current models of HE provision and participation will remain the same for years to come

Even before reading the conclusions of the report – this seems worrying. Senior university leaders think that UK HE is lagging behind global competitors, in an increasingly globalised market, and propose a series of reasons that could explain this. Maybe I misread the memo, but remind me, who is able to lead changes to culture, organisational structures and change initiatives?

The report identifies the paradox between a residing belief that the main university experience in 15 years time will still be the full time 3 year undergraduate degree. Arranged against this are the promoters of “disruption”, led by Clay Christenson and his various acolytes (Sir Michael Barber, Sebastien Thrun et al who believe that “education is broken”).

Somewhere between these two extremes however is where change will actually happen. PA identify 7 themes that they believe will transform HE globally (for more on technology changes, its worth looking at the work of Educause and the NMC Horizon Report).

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From the survey, the three themes identified as essential to survival were :

  • technology to transform learning
  • integration with working practice
  • student data analytics

Essential to maintaining competitiveness were;

  • student data analytics
  • integration with working practice
  • curriculum reforms

Technology to transform learning is a given. All of our students arrive at the university with a high level of digital capability.. First year 18 year olds do not remember a life without fast internet, with Google and Wikipedia on hand to provide information. Other students who come from employers will already be used to technology as a key part of their lives. We need to get better at recognising and uderstanding the digital skills of our students, how they differ from our own, and which digital capabilities we need to develop in both staff and students. Walking around with an iPad does not make you a digital native or resident, but realising how you can use it to create, curate and communicate learning is a start.

Data analytics is seem to be crucial for both survival as well as competiveness, which is interesting since use of student data analytics is still limited within the sector, with 2/3 of VCs surveyed saying they had made little or no progress in this area. So far we might have developed plenty of data on students who apply to us through UCAS and universities have developed plenty of market intelligence to drive recruitment, but analytics will mean more information on the performance, attendance and engagement of students. This nascent “big data” approach will potentially provide really useful information to all levels of staff in the organisation, and there are plenty of companies wanting to sell these technologies to the HE sector. Time to beware the snake oil salesmen.

Working with employers and accreditation of work experience are approaches that will be readily recognised in the sector by newer universities, although maybe more of  a challenge to understand by the more established residents in the marketplace. An increase in working like this will inevitably mean a greater shift from the traditional three year degree though – which does conflict with the view that this will remain the dominant form of HE.

PA conclude their report with:

The challenge for UK universities is not a failure to recognise the needs and opportunities for innovation, nor is it a lack of evidence for successful innovations elsewhere. Rather it stems from the profound difficulty of innovating in inherently conservative organisations that are still doing reasonably well from their old ways of working. Most universities can point to examples of innovative initiatives in their curriculum, pedagogies and student experiences, but these are almost all localised within the organisation and tentative in their scale and commitment. Meanwhile the core ‘business-as-usual’ of most institutions remains much
as it has been for many years, with diminishing relevance and value to changing student needs and expectations.

In summary, for me this report presents a distillation of key trends, but also a range of frustrations – if we can recognise what the limits are to innovation, then we need to find ways of fixing them and removing the barriers to development.

Technology is  going to be key to future developments, in learning, in analytics and in measuring the performance of an organisation, which reinforces the need for an increase in digital capability at all levels in a university organisation, as well as having a clear technology vision and strand to any operating plan.

 

 

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