How Did This Happen?

daring to be different ...

We have a story about ourselves as academics. We are unruly, independent, contrarian, anarchic even. We pursue our creative urges. We are driven by our mission. And yet ... we have constructed and continue to reinforce a homogenised and deeply conservative higher education sector.

A small number of universities with well established reputations are able to escape the gravitational pull and achieve a degree of strategic independence and the scope to innovate. The remainder are drawn together, each looking over their shoulder at the other, measuring themselves by small differences in league tables and determining their management approach by benchmarks set by the sector as a whole. Rather than look outwards, they cluster in sector affinity groups and partner with like international institutions.

Research is narrowed to lists of journals in which methodological orthodoxy is privileged over originality. As much as possible is squeezed out of precariously employed post-doctoral research fellows, each following the same highly constrained career path. Doctoral students who choose not to remain within research are regarded as failures. Impact is a sideshow.

Education comprises a preponderance of identikit offerings designed to appeal to 17-year olds, and their parents - who set their bearings by their own distant educational experiences. Professional bodies, who should be the drivers of change, close as they are to practice, require universities to adhere to their templates rather than incentivising disruption. Educational innovation proceeds slowly and in lockstep, with universities reluctant to step outside what their students, who, in the way of young people, are cautious and uncertain, inclined to conformity, readily recognise.

University strategies look the same, hiding behind each other. Small steps outside the straight jacket of similarity are rapidly discounted, because distinctive approaches, or at least their language, are immediately purloined. Each institution speaks of their unique mission but the evidence, in all but a few cases, scarcely bears that out. Structures, business models, organisational capabilities differ little. This matters - our complex skills economy, our international competitiveness, our prosperity, the needs of our students, the uncertain environment - all require a diverse and innovative HE sector.

And the kicker. We blame the environment for our conservatism - the publishers of league tables, REF, OfS, DfE, employers and so on - and complain in a muted way through our sectoral organisations, and more vociferously on twitter and amongst ourselves. Or perhaps we attribute it to cultural forces beyond our reach. The truth is however, that we are the architects of this system. It is our timidity and unwillingness to contemplate risk, our seeming dependence on what others say of us - on that bubble reputation. Where is our vaunted spirit?

I do not want to conclude negatively, I am a temperamental optimist. The very fact that it is down to us, gives us the opportunity to change. We can partner with our students and beyond the sector, we can find our courage and ourselves.