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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Scenario planning for digitalised education

by Matt Finch

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. Matt Finch’s statement can be found here.

How do you prepare for the future which you didn’t see coming? From the global financial crisis to presidential elections, the Brexit referendum, and changes to both our technological and natural environment, our times are characterised by events which challenge previous expectations and norms.

COVID-19, in particular, has challenged institutions to radically and rapidly transform their ways of working. Ongoing social, economic, technological, and environmental trends add to the sense that the sector may well experience continued turbulence and uncertainty in months and years to come.

Predictive modelling falters under conditions of uncertainty, whether or not we are already aware of the factors which we can’t pin down – the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” made famous by Donald Rumsfeld. Turbulent times remind us that no-one can actually gather evidence from the future, and confident prediction is more about faith in a given model than true certainty as to what the future holds.

As Frankie Wilson of the Bodleian Libraries commented at the evidence-based practitioners’ conference EBLIP10 last year, sometimes strategy requires a judgment which is evidence-informed but not entirely beholden to what can be learned from the past. James McMicking of the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute articulated a similar notion when, presenting scenarios for the future of air travel, he reminded his audience that “We can manage by numbers but we can’t lead by them; the narrative matters.”

So how do we find new narratives when the future is unclear and uncertain? Harvard’s Peter Scoblic argues that when uncertainty precludes analogy to situations faced in the past, leaders can usefully develop their thinking by simulating possible future contexts to inform strategy. This is the basis of scenario planning: the foresight practice which involves imagining multiple plausible futures, and thinking them through in a disciplined way to give decision-makers a fresh perspective on their situation in the present.

Instructional fables for organizations: a short history of scenario planning

Scenario planning began in the early days of the Cold War with nuclear wargaming. Realising that the anticipated conflict was unprecedented, and strategies could not be developed with reference to previous military experience, think tanks like the Rand Corporation began devising imagined future contexts to sharpen strategic thinking and highlight the implications of commanders’ and policymakers’ choices. They adopted the term “scenario” from Hollywood, meaning the detailed outline of a proposed fictional movie.

Later, Pierre Wack and his colleagues at Shell led the way in developing scenarios for use in big business. One of their great successes came in the early 1970s, when Shell’s scenario work successfully prepared them for the consequences of the Yom Kippur War. 

Shell had explored the future possibility of oil producers behaving like a cartel because they recognised it would dramatically change the sector they operated in. When the West supported Israel, angering oil-rich Arab states, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) put an embargo into effect. 

Wack and his colleagues had neither predicted the war, nor the consortium’s actions, but they had been successfully rehearsing for a world in which the oil supply was throttled by producers. Shell was able to weather the subsequent volatility of the 1970s through judicious strategic decisions, informed by the scenario work, on matters affecting the reconfiguration, sale, or shutdown of their refineries and installations.

Wack’s work enriched the scenarios process by emphasising the contrast between foresight and predictive forecasting. Scenarios still focussed on empirical observation of signs indicating the potential for change – Wack memorably described scenarios work as being like observing rain on a mountain-top, and realising that this could mean floods in the valley below a few days from now – but a scenario’s value did not lie in whether it came to pass, rather whether it stretched decision-makers’ thinking.

Rather than attempt to identify the one future which will certainly happen, scenario planning empowers organisations to imagine a number of possible future contexts which can challenge and enrich strategic thinking. These contexts are chosen not for their predictive power, but their plausibility; a scenario’s value lies in whether thinking it through usefully informs a given strategic decision – as the OECD’s Joshua Polchar puts it, they are like “instructional fables”, which needn’t have taken place in reality for them to provide helpful learning.

How will we learn next? Scenario planning for the education sector

A project conducted with the University of Oslo on the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak explored the future of digitalisation in Norwegian schools, but its findings also have value for other parts of the education sector and other national contexts.

Built around the choices facing Norwegian headteachers in early 2020, the team created three visions of Norway in 2050 – far enough out that our social and economic relationships to digital technology might have shifted significantly. In one scenario, the schoolchildren of a climate-ravaged world largely educated themselves using digital self-directed learning. In another, the collapse of oil demand led currently-prosperous Norway into a rustbelt future dominated by right-wing populism.

In the third scenario, a heavily privatised and surveilled society faced disruption from parents who fought “the algorithm” over questions of their children’s health and wellbeing. This scenario, which initially seemed the most outlandish, proved within months to speak most directly to the challenges of 2020, as Norwegian parents formed Facebook groups to dispute the government’s COVID regulations on schooling. The scenario group had not previously considered that health would be a significant battleground between carers and schools when it came to future digitalisation of the education sector, yet within months issues of online learning, and whether students should be at home or on campus, lay at the heart of Norwegian education choices.

Previous scenario engagements with the higher education sector have highlighted both the benefits and challenges of the approach. Lang’s study of two scenario planning rounds at the Open University in the early 2000s found an increase in social capital as the scenario process prompted new and deeper connections between participants in wider discussions about the university’s future. However, institutionalising the approach on an ongoing basis – as has happened for corporations like Shell or government agencies in Singapore – proved more challenging.

Not every organization may achieve the level of scenario planning capacity and competency found at Shell or in the Singaporean government. However, even institutions without the appetite or resource to sustain a major or ongoing scenario process can still improve their capacity for foresight through methodical engagement with uncertainty. This is the equivalent of watching the football highlights on your smartphone, even if you don’t have the opportunity to visit the stadium or watch the whole match at home on a high-definition TV – you can still get the results, and a sense of what is going on!

Conclusion

The pandemic has accelerated or triggered numerous transformations whose full consequences are yet to become clear, while other, previously existing trends may now bend or break as a result of 2020’s crises. The pandemic response may, in turn, cause new uncertainties – from the long-term health of the economy to the immediate question of university admissions. Ramírez and Ravetz refer to such unstable situations, caused by our own interventions, as “feral futures“.

Under such circumstances, new strategic capabilities must be developed by universities – rigorous and disciplined approaches to uncertainty which allow us to make leadership decisions on bases other than the evidence and experience of a past which may never repeat.

Scenario planning offers one method to convene a community of forward-thinking practitioners and engage them in the serious discussion of our strategic blindspots, informing and enriching future decision-making for the post-pandemic university.

Matt Finch is Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland and a facilitator on the Scenarios Programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. He currently hosts episodes of the OECD’s Government After Shock podcast. His website is mechanicaldolphin.com.


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Flexible digitally-enhanced courses that foster active learning

by Giovanna Carloni

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website.

Giovanna Carli’s statement can be found here.

The lessons learned from emergency remote teaching implemented during the Covid-19 disruption can be used to inform the design of flexible digitally-enhanced education in the post-pandemic university. Flexibility, which has emerged as pivotal during the pandemic and as a key dimension of educational practices in the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown, is likely to affect the development of higher education deeply in the near future. In this respect, course design needs to provide students with the opportunity to increase their degree of agency in planning their learning pathways by enabling them, for example, to decide autonomously to switch between various participation modes and select among various types of activities. In this light, course designers and instructors need to bear in mind that digitally-enhanced learning is deeply interwoven with active learning.

Research carried out on some blended and fully online foreign language pedagogy classes delivered as emergency remote teaching at university during the lockdown has identified the affordances of various digitally-enhanced practices suitable for fostering the development of content knowledge and critical thinking from a multilingual perspective in flexible learning environments. The findings of the studies have been used to outline the design of flexible digitally-enhanced courses, combining face-to-face and online modes, taught in a foreign language and suited to catering to the multifarious needs of university students in a post-pandemic learning context. 

The flexible digitally-enhanced course outline developed addresses both the issues related to social distancing and the need of collaborative content knowledge development in higher education. In flexible digitally-enhanced courses, students can choose whether to attend face-to-face classes or online classes, which is likely to cater to students’ multifarious needs in the new normal while increasing their sense of agency. In particular, technology-enhanced activities representative of the Redefinition category of Puentedura’s SAMR model  – “Tech allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable” – have been designed to promote innovative and highly engaging learning processes. Activities, such as ice breakers, targeted at making learners feel as members of a learning community have been created. To foster a sense of in-group membership, collaborative activities requiring students to co-construct multimodal artifacts have also been included in the blended learning environments outlined. 

In the post-pandemic context, the attainment of students’ wellbeing needs to be integrated into the pedagogical dimension of the learning experience. In this light, in flexible digitally-enhanced course design, teaching and learning practices have been devised from a pedagogy of care perspective. Furthermore, equity, another dimension emerged as essential during the pandemic, has been accounted for while designing flexible digitally-enhanced courses by adopting an open pedagogy approach, targeted at catering to the needs of all the agents engaged in post-pandemic university education. In this respect, adopting open textbooks, instructors can foster equity; in particular, open textbooks enable instructors to personalize content and activities catering to students’ needs in face-to-face and online learning environments. Likewise, using open textbooks, students can modify content to build new technology-enabled knowledge. Digital open educational resources, suitable for enhancing critical thinking through scaffolded hypothesis making and discussions in a foreign language, play a pivotal role in active learning development.

Overall, post-pandemic education needs to be flexible, digitally-enhanced, and targeted at fostering students’ active learning as well as learners’ metacognitive and professional skills through collaborative work.

Giovanna Carloni, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of Urbino, Italy. Her fields of expertise are foreign language didactics, teaching Italian as a second and foreign language, CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), English linguistics, corpus linguistics, virtual exchanges, educational technology, design for learning, and teacher training. Among her publications: Corpus Linguistics and English Teaching Materials (Milano: Franco Angeli), CLIL in Higher Education and the Role of Corpora. A Blended Model of Consultation Services and Learning Environments (Venezia: Edizioni Ca’ Foscari), and Digitally-Enhanced Practices and Open Pedagogy in English-Taught Programs. Flexible Learning for Local and Global Settings in Higher Education (Milano: Franco Angeli).


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How do we teach international students in the UK?

by Sylvie Lomer and Jenna Mittelmeier

This has been the guiding question for our current SRHE-funded research project. We are looking at how pedagogies and practices have been developed or shaped within the context of changing student demographics across the UK higher education sector. We have conducted 40 out of the 50 planned interviews and have really appreciated academics’ time and enthusiasm during a completely unprecedented semester. Our data collection and analysis continue but we wanted to communicate early findings and the types of language used by participants to communicate their pedagogy.

Many of our participants taught predominantly, or talked mainly about, postgraduate teaching, where students’ professional or life experience was frequently highlighted as important. The limitation with our participant sampling so far is an overrepresentation of applied disciplines (education, business, health-related, etc) and an underrepresentation of ‘pure’ disciplines (physics, maths, philosophy, etc) (Biglan, 1973). It’s quite possible that this represents a teaching approach that’s dominant in certain disciplines and not others.

Teaching approaches

Most participants represented their teaching in strikingly similar ways. Through careful reflection on the key information that needs to be ‘delivered or conveyed’, lecturers sought to maximise the amount of class time spent on ‘real learning’, which was understood to happen primarily in social or group settings. There appears to be consensus across the disciplines, institutions, and geographic locations of participants that an active and social approach to learning is optimal.

We anticipated variation across disciplines and contexts in the pedagogical approaches adopted by lecturers working with international students, but most participants have described largely similar approaches to managing their physical classrooms in pre-COVID times. These are commonly characterised by:

  • Chunking talking time and lectures into ‘gobbets’ of 15-20 minutes
  • Following up with small group activities (eg discussions or concrete tasks)
  • Concluding with plenary or whole group feedback

Sometimes this pattern was repeated during longer teaching sessions. Pedagogies were also mediated in different ways: through technology; with the help of teaching assistants; or in collaboration with a range of campus services. Yet, the core of how most participants represented their teaching has shown striking similarity, with reflection on the importance of social or group settings.

Participants reported challenges in implementing their approaches, particularly given that massification and growing class sizes have largely coincided with international student recruitment. Infrastructure, such as lecture theatres with fixed seating, was also commonly criticized as a limitation to pedagogy. Adaptations to online or hybrid classrooms during Covid-19 included ‘flipped’ approaches where readings or recordings were available initially online, with ‘live’ sessions designed to be solely interactive.

Representations of international students

We explored how the presence of international students influences the micro and macro practices of lecturer; in that respect, how we define ‘international students’ has been a prominent angle of questioning. Most participants defaulted to using the term as adopted in the press and public policy – non-EU degree level students. However, they also highlighted other groups of students who may also be subsumed by the international label – EU students, short-term students on exchanges or top-up programmes, and students classified as British by residency but who have been primarily educated overseas. These nuances matter, because, as participants highlight, the key point is not what students’ nationality is, but what their previous educational experiences are.

Challenges around ‘cultures of deference’ to the authority of teachers and texts were highlighted, as well as individual confidence and skills to participate orally in discussions. While some participants referred to common stereotypes of, for example, ‘silent’ Chinese students, others were quick to challenge deficit-based assumptions. The latter tended to describe the perceived benefits of having international students across cohorts and unpack the diversity of experiences that underlie such stereotyping. Diversity, in this regard, was often described as a ‘learning resource’ (Harrison, 2018), whereby international students were assumed to support classroom learning environments by sharing knowledge and experiences from their country or culture.

An alternative consideration noted by a smaller number of participants is that students should not be seen as embodiments of some abstracted form of national culture (Lomer, 2017), but rather through recognising that people are different and know different things. Some participants criticised the  binary distinction – created by fee and visa restrictions – between ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ students, given that factors which affect learning are more likely to be a culmination of previous educational experience, language, and confidence – of which none fall neatly between political borders. In that regard, participants highlighted the importance of ‘good teaching’ and a desire to develop an inclusive ‘ethos’ which works for all students.

We asked participants what they feel makes a good teacher, and were surprised to see relatively similar responses between participants, regardless of their career stage or teaching contexts. Their responses emphasised empathy, reflexivity, humility, curiosity, disciplinary passion, and the capacity to value difference. However, there was less reflection about how key learning outcomes might be underpinned by Eurocentric assumptions about education or students’ behaviours, or how things like critical thinking or academic integrity may be culturally shaped.

Reflections on professional identity

A final consideration for this project is how lecturers’ professional identities are shaped by their work with international students. Participants reflected on the loneliness of being ‘the pedagogy person’ or ‘the internationalisation person’ in departments or schools. In such contexts, some told stories about past and current colleagues or other academics in their networks who voiced explicitly racist views about international students. Most suggested these were now outliers and that the dominant discourse has changed towards a more positive view of international students.

Language used by academics when communicating the implementation of active and social learning approaches with international students positions the academic as in control and the (international) student as subaltern. For example, many participants spoke in terms of ‘being strict’, ‘setting expectations’, ‘forcing them to speak’. This was often explained with reference to meeting key learning outcomes or developing professional skills, but sits in contrast with the more emancipatory discourses often associated with student-centred approaches to teaching.

Earlier career academics have only ever taught in a highly internationalised sector, while those with a longer professional experience reflected on the change they had seen during their career. For most, internationalisation was reflected as a fact of contemporary academic life; some commented that they hadn’t thought about the particularities of teaching international students before their interview with us. For some, this was a characteristic of the discipline, particularly those in areas like business and international development; they positioned their subjects as inherently international, with assumptions that internationalised teaching followed ‘naturally’.

Get involved

The responses so far have been encouraging and suggest that, across UK institutions, academics are dedicated to: developing pedagogies that value diversity on multiple axes; working with international students; and valuing the knowledge and perspectives that an international student group can co-create.

We are still collecting data and would love to hear from anyone who teaches international students in any UK HEI, but particularly if you:

  • Teach in a STEM or Arts subject
  • Teach in Wales or Northern Ireland
  • Disagree with or don’t recognise the account above or have a different viewpoint.

All responses are strictly confidential, although participants will be invited to participate in a webinar at the end of the project.

We are working on building up a repository of case studies about teaching innovations with international students, hosted here, and welcome submissions from all (even if you do not wish to participate in an interview). Contact sylvie.lomer@manchester.ac.uk or jenna.mittelmeier@manchester.ac.uk for more information.

SRHE member Sylvie Lomer is Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedogogy and policy enactment.

SRHE member Jenna Mittelmeier is Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focus broadly on the internationalisation of higher education,  taking a critical perspective on issues of power, privilege, and ethics in international higher education.

Our thanks to Parise Carmichael-Murphy for reviewing the blog before it was submitted.

References

Biglan, Anthony (1973) ‘The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas’, Journal of Applied Psychology 57(3): 195

Harrison, N (2015) ‘Practice, problems and power in ‘internationalisation at home’: Critical reflections on recent research evidence’, Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 412-430


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Admissions tutors’ perspectives on widening access to selective STEM degrees

by Eliel Cohen, Camille Kandiko Howson and Julianne Viola

This blog follows a project supported by the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund, involving interviews with admissions tutors and staff in department-based admissions decisions in STEM fields at Imperial College London, and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the three most selective higher education institutions in England. A project report for the full study is available here

Admissions decisions at more selective universities are often made ‘locally’, that is by disciplinary-based academics who will likely be directly involved in teaching students. Given such autonomy, we join Steven Jones, Dave Hall and Joanna Bragg in foregrounding localised admissions practices as key sites of study for understanding widening participation practices and outcomes. In March and April 2020 we conducted eight interviews with individuals holding admissions tutor (or similar) roles in STEM courses at three elite English universities (the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College London).

This post summarises key findings, emphasising that admissions tutors’ perceptions, priorities and practices are often disjointed and disconnected from wider institutional and national policies, grounded in a conservative ethos which slows down the widening of access to selective STEM degrees.

There is fairness and there is ‘fairness’

Fairness was a key theme in our interviews, with all but one participant using the word ‘fair’ or ‘fairness’ explicitly when discussing the key principles of admissions. However, ‘fairness’ tended to have two main meanings which not only differed from but could actively contradict each other. Marginson discusses these contrasting notions of fairness in access to higher education in terms of the competing philosophical traditions to which they relate, drawing on the likes of John Rawls and Amartya Sen. Our findings more closely match the more procedure-focused tradition that Marginson identifies as ‘equity as fairness’, as opposed to the more outcomes focused tradition of ‘equity as inclusion’.

The first and dominant view referred to equal treatment of applicants. This procedural meaning of fairness is not an end in itself but more a means towards ensuring that other admissions priorities were achieved consistently and transparently. First among these was identifying and admitting those applicants with the greatest ‘potential’. We found strong evidence of what has elsewhere been referred to as the potential-based perspective amongst our participants, who consistently used words like ‘high-potential’, ‘high-ability’, or simply ‘the best’ to describe the kinds of students they prioritised and targeted in admissions.

This notion of fairness as a characteristic of procedures which will unproblematically reveal the ‘best’ applicants not only differs from, but can undermine the secondary notion of fairness, one grounded in social justice – in other words, fairness in terms of greater equality of outcomes regardless of one’s background. Some of our participants exhibited at least implicit awareness that there was a potential contradiction between these two notions of fairness, since it is often difficult to see the potential in applicants from less advantaged backgrounds.

On the whole, participants did not see widening participation as a top priority, feeling that there were limits to the extent to which they should be using their role and finite resources to address social inequalities.

Disconnect between admissions policy and practice

The widening participation agenda of the past two decades, and especially the more recent focus on contextualised admissions, implies a shift in admissions practices. Perhaps most obviously it suggests an approach which no longer simply prioritises and privileges those students with easily demonstrable ‘potential’ but rather assesses all applicants’ attainments and abilities in light of the very different contexts in which they have been brought up and educated.

However, what became clear in our interviews was that admissions tutors’ actions and decisions are rarely grounded in the widening participation goals announced by governing bodies and institutional Access and Participation Plans (APP). Rather, in most cases they fell back on what seemed appropriate to their own local context. This resulted in practices which, although sometimes innovative and effective, were disjointed and disconnected from broader widening participation policies and sometimes even counter to them.

For example, some participants said that they might prioritise applicants based on their gender, nationality (but not ethnicity) or age in order to improve the perceived ‘balance’ in their localised cohort, despite no official policies asking them to do so. Other participants felt that any consideration of gender (and protected characteristics more generally) was inappropriate and potentially unlawful.

While we are sympathetic about an interest in a balanced cohort, our findings highlight that admissions decisions are sometimes made on the basis of localised and idiosyncratic perceptions and priorities rather than institutional or national policy. It is not clear, for example, whether a marginal offer would be more likely made to an applicant whose background contributed to perceived ‘cohort balance’ or to an applicant from a widening participation background.

Risk-aversion and the need for data and evaluation

Although all participants expressed support for widening participation in general, they were generally risk-averse in terms of how far they felt widening participation should go. For example, most of our participants were actively or even strongly against lowering grade offers for widening participation students. This view was justified in various ways, for example in terms of concerns about the need to maintain standards of the students and the curriculum, the perceived ‘extra support’ that students admitted on such a basis may require, and the concern that such students would be more likely to perform poorly or drop out. These views were despite an absence of evidence that students admitted on a contextual basis performed worse than other students. This risk-aversion or conservative ethos seems to be a common response to localised admissions decision making.

However, some of our participants acknowledged that one thing preventing them from being able to overcome this risk-aversion was a lack of data monitoring the performance of widening participation students, ideally broken down to the level of students admitted partially on the basis of widening participation and contextual information. Anecdotally, we have reason to believe that this would show that more could be done to widen access, including the increase of lower contextualised offers, without it affecting standards. If nothing else, these data could support evaluation of outcomes of specific admissions practices.

Admissions in England in 2020 were severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever new models or workarounds may emerge in the future, evidence suggests that there will continue to be a role for relatively autonomous admissions tutors in selective institutions. Our findings suggest that the sector needs to reflect on how to account for the institutionally situated perceptions and behaviours of admissions tutors if it is going to continue its widening access objectives in the future.

SRHE member Dr Eliel Cohen is a sociologist of education and a research associate at Imperial College London. His forthcoming book with Routledge investigates whether universities in the twenty-first century are thriving or just surviving through an analysis of academic boundaries and boundary-crossing activities.  

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko HowsonisAssociate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research & Scholarship (CHERS) at Imperial College London. She is an international expert in higher education research with a focus on student engagement; student outcomes and learning gain; quality, performance and accountability; and gender and prestige in academic work.

Dr Julianne Viola is a social scientist specialising in young people’s civic identity development, efficacy, and engagement with their communities. Her book, Young People’s Civic Identity in the Digital Age (Palgrave 2020) focuses on experiences of young people living in the USA at a unique time in the nation’s history, and calls for the reinvigoration of civic education for the digital age. Julianne earned her doctorate at the University of Oxford and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London.


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From money to the market: the transformation of the Strategic Plan

by GR Evans

Speaking on a Topic for Discussion, a draft of Oxford’s Strategic Plan for 2013-8, Shearer West, then Head of Humanities, spoke as a woman with experience of strategic plans. She had “been involved” with their “development” in other places. She wanted to see the new Strategy “regularly revisited and subject to adjustment as times change”. As to its content, she spoke as a pragmatist. “Oxford academics rightly pride themselves on elegant and incisive writing”, she said, but “a strategic plan will certainly never win a prize for inspiring prose, because it is an operational document”.

The Strategic Plans of Britain’s universities may have begun on that practical and unpretentious assumption, but they have evolved into glamorous presentations designed to market their universities to prospective students and benefactors as well as to offer assurance that they are well run and not in financial difficulties. As headlines announce that a dozen universities may now be at risk of financial collapse it is a topical question whether this is a desirable trend. The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ Briefing Note provides a table. Yet universities which may fall into the category of the financially vulnerable have Strategic Plans as confident and optimistic as those far higher in the league-tables. The University of Sunderland, reported by THE in January as facing a ‘challenging financial environment’ and closing courses, has a Plan for 2020-2025 presenting it in visually exciting terms and glowing wording as ‘a twenty-first century global university’.

The principal reason at first for requiring universities to have Strategic Plans was ‘operational’. They began as a device to ensure they took long term financial planning seriously and to facilitate monitoring of their use of the public funding of higher education. They became a requirement for universities when the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 created the Higher Education Funding Councils, replacing the short-lived single Universities Funding Council. For nearly a century until it was abolished in 1989 public money for university higher education been distributed through the University Grants Committee.

Although the new Councils were intended to act as buffers betwee Government control and the allocaton of block grants of public funding, the Government nevertheless gained closer control of the spending, for each year the Minister send a letter of guidance and instruction. The Councils’ Financial Memoranda required universities to give an accurate account of their finances as a condition of funding.

In 1997 the Dearing Report took it for granted that:

institutions share their strategic plans, including an estates strategy, with the three Higher Education Funding Councils; and the financial memoranda require institutions to secure value for money in the use of their assets and to follow a maintenance plan for their estates.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England was by now duly receiving and analysing these plans. In 2000 it published a guide for heads of institutions, senior managers and members of governing bodies, Strategic planning in higher education.

The call for such plans was reinforced in 2003 the White Paper, The future of higher education. The intention was to ask HEFCE to

look at how funding for departments with lower ratings under the existing system can be related to potential to progress further, and linked to good planning for future improvement.

HEFCE felt it had to set an example. Introducing its own internal Strategic Plan 2003-8 its then CEO, Howard Newby, said:

We hope that our colleagues in universities and colleges, for their part, will find in our plan a secure and practical framework for their own planning and activities throughout and beyond the planning period. We look forward to working with them to ensure that national policies and our strategy are put fully into effect, and to support and maintain a national HE system working consistently to international standards of excellence.

However, in 2017 the Higher Education and Research Act replaced HEFCE with the Office for Students and the Financial Memorandum requirement disappeared. The other parts of the UK have made their own arrangements under devolved powers. The Scottish Funding Council funds further as well as higher education and in 2020 it requires each college and university to have an Outcome Agreement in line with both ‘ministerial priorities and the SFC’s own ‘strategic framework’. It explains their purpose:

Outcome Agreements articulate how institutions provide an education that best meets the changing social and economic needs of their regions, reflecting a changing and increasingly diverse profile of students. They are an important part of the framework in which we ensure that institutions make best use of public funds and exercise good governance.

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales published a Corporate Strategy (2017-20) setting out its strategy for ‘delivery of the Welsh Government’s priorities for higher education’, as ‘informed by our annual remit letter’. It promised to: Monitor the financial sustainability of HE providers, and the organisation and management of their financial affairs, with particular reference to the requirements of our Financial Management Code. Northern Ireland’s Government funds its universities directly through the Department for the Economy without the intervention of a Funding Council.

On 9 September 2020 the Office for Students published its Guidance for providers for the financial monitory returns. It requires an Annual Financial Return with ‘workbook’ and commentary’, and in the case of relative newcomers to higher education provision, a Business Plan. It has a Strategy (2018-21) of its own but it does not seem to see it as a regulatory essential for a university to have one.

Nevertheless, it has become a continuing custom for universities to publish their Strategy or Strategic Plan. Such Plans have broadened far beyond the endeavour to assure funding councils and government that they had their finances in good order and are spending public money appropriately and to good effect. They are unlikely to mention their finances except to invite donations. They now tend to include Visions and Missions, often dividing their content into small pieces for easy consumption. They offer photographic and even video illustrations . In its interim ‘refresh’ of its current Plan Delivering Impact for Society, our Strategic Plan 2016, Edinburgh points to developments so far and a video to watch for ‘a short summary of the values, strategic priorities and aspirations of the new draft plan’.

The transformation of a vehicle for reporting financial soundness to a public relations and marketing opportunity in which the plain truth is edited for frankly presentational purposes should surely sit uncomfortably with the purposes of a university.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and served as CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE.