Academics at senior level face an increasingly complex set of circumstances. In a decentred world senior managers must maintain public confidence in the institutions of learning while remaining responsive to technological challenges, and long-term institutional resilience must be ensured while resources are uncertain.
So what are the main issues in UK HE that threaten public confidence and institutional resilience? There are many global and/or international imponderables facing us all, of course, from climate change to upheavals in the international world order. But closer to home, there are a number of domestic government and policy issues that senior managers can anticipate and respond to proactively.
Universities have been quick to articulate the economic, cultural and social consequences of the EU Referendum vote of July 2016. UK HE is among the largest sectors in the UK economy, and recruits a significant number of EU citizens as both staff and students. According to the universities’ representative body, UUK, in 2014-15 16% of academic staff were from the EU, and in 2016 EU students accounted for 33% of all international students in UK HE institutions. And then there is the grant income from the EU, with a recent study on the economic impact of EU funding for universities finding that EU grants accounted for 14.2% of all research funding in 2014-15, making a contribution of nearly 557 million to GDP.
While no one quite knows the long-term consequences of Brexit for funding collaborations, the government has agreed to underwrite Horizon2020 funding until 2020. There are, however, considerable implications for recruitment in an international context in which Britain may be perceived as hostile to immigrants or outsiders. Senior managers need to take active steps to broadcast a welcoming message to EU countries and must actively recruit across the international context, looking for new country partners where possible. At the same time legal support must be ensured for existing EU staff and students, and the infrastructure for dealing with any new recruitment regulations (visa support, home office requirements, and so forth) put in place.
REF / TEF
The Research Excellence Framework is a well-known funding allocation and quality assurance exercise for which universities are well prepared. But in the coming year the shape of the new Teaching Excellence Framework (aka TEF) will become clear. Senior managers need to be closely responsive to the demands of the TEF in order to ensure that their institution scores well, since TEF results will determine the fee structure of any given institution. But they must also be alive to the problem of these major policy exercises taking up resources and expertise that may be needed elsewhere. While the TEF promises a ‘light touch’ approach, universities’ experience of REF shows that these exercises can be cumbersome beasts, significantly overshadowing strategic planning, recruitment and resource allocation unless careful staff management is in place.
Remuneration is a perennial issue for senior managers to attend to. Wage stagnation in particular haunts the sector, and this, accompanied by the UCU’s focus on casualisation, threatens to cause ongoing industrial unrest. Strategic planning in this regard needs to focus on making sound arguments for ethical casual contracts (including facilitating entry to a sector which might otherwise become ossified), as well as guaranteeing sound career paths and adequate, ethical remuneration.
The introduction of fees in 2011 brought with it a consumer culture that presents many challenges to universities. Student (and parent, and even employer) dissatisfaction is a perpetual concern. Universities are attempting to address this by developing more student-centred university experiences, including making long term infrastructure investments. This brings me to the last key concern for senior managers today –
Estates and planning
In the above context the need for new buildings is pressing. But senior managers are caught on the horns of a dilemma – whether to borrow, albeit at very low interest rates, but with the attendant risks of borrowing, or whether to divert resources from surplus / stockpiles, but with no immediate return. University managers also need to consider the requirement to maintain large cash surpluses for future building provision in the event of a housing market collapse, one of the consequences of which for universities would be to allow them to re-invest in the private housing (student accommodation) sector, and thereby opening up a much-needed source of revenue.