To mark the upcoming UK Higher Education Regulation Forum taking place in the UK on the 19-20 May, we spoke to the President of Plymouth University, Professor Wendy Purcell about the challenges facing the higher education industry in the UK. Professor Purcell recommends universities to work on their distinctiveness in order to stay competitive in a changing market.
Higher education in the UK is a success story and what we do matters! But let’s not be complacent about that, there are challenges and we need to face them. Let me outline just three: distinctiveness; economic impact, and social inclusion.
University income is earned by delivering value – and that’s clearer now in this new arena of student fees and research impact. Being clear about what we’re really good at – academic programmes, learning approach and/or research theme – and communicating that in a powerful and evidence-based way is what it takes to distinctive. Smart specialisation is a phrase we’re coming to learn – perhaps we can do more to be smart as universities? We need to portray the richness of the UK sector, not vertically hierarchical but horizontally stratified around excellence with a clear focus on return on investment.
We’re also seeing place-based economic interventions as the national growth strategy is actioned through local decision-making. And it’s here that universities are both catalysing and driving economic activity. But we can do more to open up our resources to drive entrepreneurial activity and promote innovation to address the key issue of low productivity in the UK workforce. We need policy makers to understand how best to unlock university assets and league table compilers to start measuring what matters – such as innovation.
And universities need to step up and do more about connecting the skills landscape so that talent in our society can be harnessed. That means taking a different approach to driving social inclusion and spending more time on connecting the talent pipeline from schools to the tertiary sector. In also means a greater focus on student success in terms of retention and outcome as well as employability and career planning.
In the global higher education landscape, the winners will be those that focus on their core strengths, develop their distinctiveness and are innovative and bold in facing the future.
I outlined some of these issues in my paper Purcell, W. (2014) Disruption and distinctiveness in higher education. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education. Volume 18, Issue 1, 2014, pages 3- 8.
Professor Wendy Purcell will be delivering a presentation titled “Locally rooted, globally connected: the role of HEIs in making place” at the UK Higher Education Regulation Forum. This event is part of the Routledge Global Higher Education Series, a series of events that will be taking a close-up look at higher education in the UK, Asia, the US and more. You can view the agenda for the UK Higher Education Regulation forum here.