Reflections on the value of HE in the wider community and economy

Following the AHUA’s Spring Conference, Robin Henderson, Managing Director of MY Consultants and AHUA Development Consultant, reflects on the wider purposes of institutions and how to reconnect value.

At the AHUA Spring Conference in April, Nicola Dandridge (outgoing Chief Executive of the OfS) was asked a question about how she had managed to sustain 15 years in senior roles within the higher education sector. Her response to this question caused me to reflect, as it highlighted to her the value of what the HE sector achieves for students, for the towns and cities where HE institutions are based, and for the wider national economy of the UK.

Management and leadership writers, for example Dan Pink and Simon Sinek, have written about how connecting to the purpose of an organisation can benefit staff motivation.  And yet research from the CIPD in 2018 indicated that only 47% of staff are motivated by their organisation’s core purpose with significant differences between staff grades.

In my experience, the majority of HE staff do connect to the purpose of their institution but most often in terms of the impact it has on cohorts of students (often localised to specific schools / departments) and the societal benefits that their research generates.

However, the impact that universities have on the wider economy at a local and national level is something which I very rarely hear staff discussing beyond senior management teams. Have these wider goals, those which were the underpinning foundations of the sector, got lost in the relentless series of objectives often captured in an excellence framework (choose your letter to go ahead of the EF) and yet another set of league tables?

Another speaker at our Spring Conference gave us an insight into these broader impacts. Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal of the University of Glasgow, highlighted the economic benefits that the University of Glasgow brings to the wider economy. A recent report from London Economics estimated that the contribution of the University of Glasgow to the wider economy was £4.4billion.

The challenge for HE leaders is about how to enhance the communication of these impacts in a way that engages staff across institutions no matter what their role to enable them to see the true societal value of the institution. This I would argue is even more relevant for those who lead professional services where the distance between outcomes and inputs is often greater than in the academic community.

The more fundamental question however is how do you go about doing this? At a pragmatic internal level, universities have work to do to connect staff to the “why” of more of the activities undertaken within an institution.

I regularly work with staff, many of whom will have been tasked with delivering research which has to be “REFable”, who have no sense of the value of funding nor what the organisation is able to achieve through the REF process.

Beyond that we need to think about communicating those wider purposes – often linked to the founding principles of institutions – to enable individuals to reconnect to the value which universities generate. This would appear to be especially relevant at this point amid the challenges of workload, industrial action and two very challenging years of the pandemic.

Much of the data highlighting the work that the organisation is doing to achieve these goals is likely to exist already in one form or another. What is required is to build communications and narrative highlighting those goals in a way that engages colleagues across the whole institution from the educators, programme administrators, student services, researchers, estates, finance teams and all the other professional teams within the institution.