The changing face and place of HEIs: implications for student engagement

By Richard Black|July 2, 2015|Research|2 comments

There has been much talk of diversification of the higher education sector in recent years. The outcome of the market was expected to be one in which institutions specialized in what they are good at in order to attract students. Talk of the ‘squeezed middle’ for example highlighted the problems for institutions trapped between ‘research excellence’ at one end of the market, and ‘teaching excellence’ at the other. In this sense, recent remarks by Sir Steve Smith that the government is likely to ask universities to ‘specialize in what they are good at’ – and target funding and student visa sponsorship accordingly, can be seen as layering yet another pressure on the sector to diversify.

Yet if Sir Steve is right, this will involve quite a change in the direction of travel for universities, with major implications for their place in the economy, and for student engagement. Because the current trend is not to diversification, but to increasing conformity with what the government, the press, ‘public opinion’ and students’ parents appear to want. At the same time, this response to the demand of the market is matched not by growing student satisfaction, but all too often by disengagement.

If we look first at research, whilst the ‘research-intensive’ universities like to talk about being research intensive, and do have different arrangements for research to many post-1992 universities, one of the big stories of the last few decades is how the latter have invested heavily in research across successive RAEs and REFs. As a result, they have successfully demonstrated research excellence across a wide range of UK HEIs, something that in itself, is not damaging to the student experience.

Yet in terms of teaching as well, in order to play in the game of expansion created by the market in HE, universities need to widen their demand, not narrow it. That has resulted not in institutions focusing on their comparative advantage, and driving specialization targeted to students’ varied interests; but on a rush for the middle of the market, at least in England where this market has been created. That means most English universities at the moment are trying to have not only more research, but also students, and a singular vision of teaching and research excellence underpinned by growth.

Another more pernicious pressure for conformity is the growing pressure on all universities to improve graduate outcomes. Of course, getting our students into good graduate outcomes is worthwhile and important. It is also the case – as a recent survey of VCs reinforces – that there are significant innovations to be made in terms of closer integration of study with work, and the greater use of technology to transform learning experiences. But university is about so much more than graduate outcomes – especially those just six months after graduation, as the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey currently measures. Surely if there is a common purpose to universities, it is to help students to think.

What does all of this have to do with student engagement? The market in HE was supposed to align our institutions more closely with student demand, enhancing student satisfaction and making students more actively engaged with their learning. Yet many students appear to be more and more disengaged from their learning, and/or feel that universities offer poor value for money. Surely one reason for this is that in university management, we have become increasingly driven by policy or funding imperatives that are making universities all more alike, rather than understanding the different historic missions of our institutions, and of different parts of the sector.

To take one example, many of the larger (and indeed smaller) civic universities in cities outside London were set up as a matter of civic pride, to deliver learning and economic and social benefits to the local economy. This an idea entirely consistent with the current government’s vision of universities at the heart of vibrant regional economies. Indeed, it is an idea that has multi-party support, having strong antecdents in recent Labour and coalition administrations. It is an important role for universities, and one with the capacity to enthuse students too. But it is surely not the mission of all universities, whilst even these civics increasingly need to look nationally and internationally for students, partners and funding.

Then there are the more specialist universities and colleges, set up for more specific purposes – from universities of the arts, of veterinary and agricultural science to music and performance; to universities like Essex and Sussex that were explicitly set up to challenge the status quo, to think radically and differently. Yet universities like my own, set up in 1916 to productively engage with the British empire and now thoroughly re-imagined as a unique international university with a strong emphasis on language and culture, have seen their specialist funding cut to the bone (in our case, removed altogether from next year). And we also operate within a funding environment and wider discourse that makes it difficult to survive without becoming less specialist.

A move towards a more diversified HE sector would be a welcome one, but only if it is based on a renewed confidence in what our purpose is. Most universities do care about their specific histories and missions, but we are too seldom willing to say that this matters, too often swayed by the homogenising tendencies of funding imperatives and discourses about HE as a whole. No wonder students stop engaging, and just put their heads down to get a degree and a job.

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