Universities in the New Normal: Is It Time to Rethink our Values?

Back in July, fellow colleague and good friend of UKTGA, Kevin Richardson hosted a workshop on Universities and their need to assess their current situation sin this CV-19 era.


Take a look at his full research here:

Universities in the New Normal: Is It Time to Rethink our Values?
A Provocation!

The proposal to government from Universities UK seeking a financial bail-out in the current crises is not just about money in the short term. The proposal can be seen as the first of many possible steps in establishing a new normal for the system of higher education in England as a whole. Things that mattered most in the days before COVID may well no longer have the same relevance. The concept of unfettered competition and the potential for universities to be allowed to ‘exit the system’ with no apparent thought to the inevitable local social and economic implications may well have ended. Independence and autonomy may well become a much more relative term as new strings are introduced, and as the sector may well be forced to accept a new ‘regime’ and ‘fundamental’ reform. The sector can allow the government to dictate the design of the new normal or it can consider for itself how better to base those futures. It can hang on to artificial technocracy of the old ways, or it can define a new future much more soundly based on their reflections of their positive contributions to the COVID crises, and on renewed fundamental values which underpin the real purposes of what it is meant to be a new university in the new normal. In summary, it can’t have its cake and eat it...

Universities across all parts of the country responded to the health crises with real pace, skill and scale to support its students, stakeholders and local communities. The physical and mental health of students was recognised immediately as being of paramount importance. Hardship Funds and Food Banks to help students in financial need were set up or expanded in scale. Students were sent home to find that replacement provision of much teaching had largely migrated online with previously unbelievable speed. The simplistic notion that universities were not in loco parentis was ditched immediately. In its place was a genuine and sensitive approach to pastoral support for its students which it accepted, by its actions, were in its care. Administratively, universities agreed with government and its agencies that work on the Research Excellence Framework could be effectively suspended with immediate effect. Universities agreed also to a form of a ‘deal’ in the competition to attract students, albeit temporarily, and even if some universities are likely to benefit more than others. These new approaches were underpinned implicitly by values rather than by money or basic institutional survival.
The excellent work of universities in the health crises was not limited to students and staff on campus. Yorkshire Universities, as one example, easily and quickly collated an iterative database of all actions undertaken by universities in collaboration with its stakeholders across that county.

Doctors, nurses and other medical staff were graduated and released early to go to work immediately on the front line of the fight against the virus. Specialist equipment in university laboratories were commissioned to produce PPE equipment, sanitising liquids, ventilators and other breathing apparatus. Other labs were commissioned and car parks were offered up at urgent notice to deliver COVID testing. Online training was delivered to NHS staff who had been reallocated to work on COVID priorities. Numerous university facilities were made available free of charge to fee and accommodate health service staff. University staff were given paid leave to volunteer their specialist knowledge in local hospitals. Social science researchers have been deployed around the region to study the socio-economic impacts of the virus in local communities. Local businesses have been provided with new training and advice and guidance services provided free of charge. Senior university officials joined local COVID Task Forces to help develop more aggregated approaches across different institutions. Universities across Yorkshire have delivered for their local community even in the face of potentially severe financial pressures of their own. Universities in all other regions can tell a very similar story.

Universities have demonstrated that they stepped up to the plate to support their community in their local place. Universities have deployed their often very significant assets as an anchor institution in partnership with other stakeholders, their willing staff and their students. These examples will do much to (re)build the trust and confidence that local people have in their university. The new links established between the university and local communities are likely to last long after the immediate crises, and should be built upon. Universities will do well after the immediate crises to reflect on the values, which underpinned these contributions of which they can be proud. They can compare those values and actions against the drivers which motivated and focussed their behaviours before the crises, and what they perceived then, as the primary purpose of their university.

The objective of a university should not be to rise up in whatever specific newspaper ranking system best suits the specific interests of any university. Nor should it be to secure a good score in the REF in order to attract more QR funding for research, or to win more money from challenge led competitions managed by the Research Councils. It should not be to build the number of citations or patents lodged. Nor should it be to get a good score in the TEF or recognition from students in the National Student Survey. The primary purpose of a university is not to grow in order to become more financially sustainable, or for the supposed status that is perceived as deriving from such growth, or even growth for its own sake. Nor is the purpose of a university to solve problems around the world if that is done simply to build prestige and attract further funding. Some of these aims and activities are good things and are useful to measure but they should not be the overriding purpose of any university.

Most universities were established by the hard efforts of local people, local businesses and civic society to support the development of the local economy as it first industrialised and then continued to grow. Universities trained the skilled workers needed by firms and developed the technology needed to protect the environment. They trained the doctors and scientists needed to improve the health of the workforce and the quality of the local environment. These functions of a local anchor institution remain as relevant today as they did in the past, and no more so at this time of ever widening economic disparities, and at this very moment as we seek to recover from the triple crises of the environment, health and the economy. We have seen that our universities have demonstrated recently that they can deliver locally on these agendas as only anchor institutions can. But, equally, nor do these important functions alone represent the purpose of a university.

The real purposes of a university are to enthral, to excite, to stimulate, to act as a catalyst for untrammelled open-eyed curiosity and for hard and crunchy critical thought. It is to offer new and seemingly unlimited opportunities to all people, especially those who would otherwise not have the same life chances. It is about bringing together people of all backgrounds, in peace and in friendship, to learn and to wonder together, because that is the right thing to do, not because the university needs to make a profit from international visitors. The purpose is to build and develop people to be better human beings, equipping them with the knowledge, understanding, skills and tools which they can use and develop further throughout the rest of their life. The purpose of a university is also to find new opportunities to do things better, to help the economy be more productive and more sustainable, and, increasingly, to solve wider societal challenges that are, in no way addressed by the perceived benefits of the supposedly value free, free market. Crucially, it is to build and to share freely that new knowledge with all others that need it. The fundamental purpose of a university is therefore relatively simple to define. It is why most universities were formed and remain legally established as a charity and not as a business. It is simply to do good.

Each and every university has a strategy which contains a vision. Some last a long time and others only until the next vice chancellor is appointed. Some drive cultures and focus activities over the longer term, and are widely held across the university. Others lie redundant in a glossy binder on a dusty shelf, or in a dark and unread corner of the internet. Many strategies speak of enhanced reputation and growth, ‘going up the rankings’, and competing to attract more students and more researchers and more research money to fund those researchers. The notion of ‘excellence’ is often widely promoted even if only a few seek to define that term in any meaningful detail. There are some universities who can demonstrate with real and hard practical examples how they are delivering at both global and local levels, but the geographical balance in the scope of many universities is often portrayed as more national or even global, much more so than local, as those wider perspectives are perceived by many as bringing greater prestige, and, as a result, more students, more research and more money. But fewer university strategies set out within any real precision the values which are important to it as an institution and as a community, and critically, how those values were established and how management works with these values to embed them into everyday cultures and decision making.

The health crises and the economic crises that is now unfolding, including the financial black hole facing many universities, is a time when institutions can, should and must consider again how its own values will inform its new futures. The new normal will not be the same as the old normal. What worked in the past may very well no longer work in the future. Values such as ‘internationalism’ can no longer be equated simply with income. Higher education as a sector will be much less about unrestricted ‘competition’ and less also about defining and measuring ‘excellence.’ Institutional ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy’ can be only now be more relative when the sector is now even more dependent on the government and its use of taxpayer finance.

The best universities in the world are clear about the values which they think are most important to them and how they use these values to drive their culture and practices.

New values are now needed more than ever. How can universities be more ‘kind’? How can they ‘care’ more, and ‘share’ more, building on, and continuing the good work they demonstrated during the CIVID crisis? Now aware that some BME people are much more likely to die from COVID as white people, how can universities make a much more substantial and effective contribution to the genuine ‘inclusion’ of more people from different backgrounds, especially those who have been discriminated against by their socio-economic background, ethnicity, disability or sexuality? How can a university decide whether to fund new research activities when the money could alternatively be used to continue to provide free hot meals as it did during the crises to homeless people in the food kitchen across the street? Indeed, what values does the university now place on key workers and how can it decide how best to build further the skills of these key workers? What new and real value does the university place on its relationship with other stakeholders with whom it cooperated so closely during the COVID emergency. What value does it place on collaboration rather than competition? What value does the university place on its civic role of collaborative leadership it demonstrated during the health crises and again now, as it and other anchor institutions pull together to build a new local economy? How does a university decide what is most important? The discovery of a fantastic new theoretical technology that may never brought to market? Or more simple methods to make best practical use of existing technologies in new ways; as it did with the very rapid adaption of ventilators? It is only the use of new values that can help make these new decisions within the new normal.

The new values that will become more important to a university can only reflect those of its local communities and of its local stakeholders. New values cannot be imported from the latest fashionable academic textbook, from simplistic governmental jargon or slogans, nor indeed, simply and only from its experiences in the health crises. Nor can values just be single words presented neatly in yet another glossy document. Values must be embedded across the entire organisation, even within the most collegiate and otherwise fragmented institutions. The university needs to demonstrate practically how values will used to design strategy and to make operational decisions. How will it use these values to attract more of the students and researchers that are more likely to demonstrate these values. Senior management, including the vice chancellor in particular, will need to lead the adoption of new values and will need to visibly accountable for delivery and impact on performance. Values can only have meaning and real effect if most of the external stakeholders of a university can recount those values with ease and without prompting, and if they confirm that they believe they are genuine.

Seeking to build a new normal that is based on values rather than on quasi-artificial performance metrics can much more easily drive a university to set itself apart from others to attract more students and researchers. A values approach can embed a university more strongly within its local state and it can then benefit from its political influence and financial systems. Firms of all sizes and from all places, local and national, will be much more aware of cultures, capacities and motivations. Demand and private cash contributions for research will rise. It may cost more money in the short term, new investments will be needed, and it may well take time for the fuller benefits to feed through, but the longer-term outcomes can only be better than the kinds of shorter term and narrower focus of the technical and financial outputs that many universities are currently required by the current system to seek.

Universities can learn much from the good they did during the health crises. They can build their own futures based on the values that matter the most and are really important.



How has CV-19 affected relationships around the world?

Poppy Humphrey, our town gown relations expert here at UKTGA has been researching how international student housing sectors are adapting to the challenges of Covid-19.


Her full written article can be found on University Business by following this link.