Is There a Public Interest in Higher Education? Or, Surround Yourself with Better People and Seal it with a KIS

QAA Annual Conference Report June 2011, East Midlands Conference Centre

 This year’s QAA Annual Conference was sited at the East Midlands Conference Centre amidst the luscious greenery of the University of Nottingham campus. The sun shone, as did the faces of all the students who had been invited to attend the conference for the first time. Cohering around the theme of whether or not there is a public interest in higher education, discussion was kicked off by Sir Rodney Brooke, Chair of the QAA, who opened the session and introduced the days’ proceedings. Opening keynotes from Anthony McClaran, Chief Executive of the QAA and Prof. Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor, University of Lincoln, presented some of the core thematic thinking that had circulated preliminary discussion surrounding the notion of how ‘public interest’ was conceptualised. The agreement seemed to be cemented around a necessity to maintain accountability both to and for the public, to improve public information surrounding the activity of higher education institutions, to promote the contribution of UK higher education institutions to local and regional economies and the necessity for a closer engagement with both our students and the differing publics that UK institutions engage with. All of the above discussion was targeted with a view to assessing the value of the activity of UK higher education institutions.
An action to which Prof. Mary Stuart called for a direct engagement with students and the wider public in order to directly tackle and re-negotiate the position and perception of higher education within the public mindset.

With the core themes opened, the event broke out into plenary sessions that examined separately:
·         The public perceptions of higher education and the notion of the university and ‘pubic good’ (Prof. John Morgan, Paul Manners)
·         A consideration of the student experience of university education in terms of both consumption and community (Amy Jessop and Kerry Gough, Birmingham City University, Jemma Blease-Dudley, Liverpool John Moores’ University, Tom Corfield, University of Bristol, Joe Oliver, The University of Sheffield)
·         Analysis of the globalisation of higher education and the difficulties faced by institutions in addressing interests on a local, regional and international level (Prof. David Greenaway, University of Nottingham, Will Archer, iGraduate) and finally,
·         A consideration of the position of UK universities as private enterprises (Tim Stewart, BPP, Prof. Peter Scott, Institute of Education)
As Student Academic Partners working at Birmingham City University, our primary interest in attending the event lay in gauging the means and levels of student engagement across the UK higher education environment. As presenters at the first ever student-orientated session at the QAA National Conference, it was rewarding to see such a huge turnout for a panel that essentially concerned itself with the student experience. The session, entitled ‘Consumption or Community: Student-Led Efforts to Monitor and Improve Their Education’ was orientated around the extended activity of students within Higher Education and the added value that those activities fostered.
Delegates were particularly encouraging with regards to the persistent engagement with students that each of the panellists were espousing in different ways. Jemma Blease-Dudley’s paper was focused upon the Liverpool Students’ Union Amazing Teacher Awards, in which students organised and held their own Teacher Awards with Oscar-style presentations at their graduation event. Students nominate their ‘best’ teachers for a variety of different reasons; be that for the most engaging teaching, for going the extra mile, or simply for being a sympathetic ear. All nominated staff would receive a letter confirming their nomination, along with extracts of the comments made about them by their students. Staff are said to have been overwhelmed when in receipt of these letters, regardless of whether they win the eventual award. Jemma presented a convincing case for supporting the additional ‘work’ that staff do across the University, stating that details of nominated staff are also sent to Heads of School, so that their recognition amongst the student cohort can be acknowledged more formally.
Another way in which students were engaging directly with Higher Education institutions was with Tom Corfield’s presentation surrounding the ‘Best of Bristol’ series. As a former student, Tom commented that he had been inspired to attend the lectures of friends who were studying other courses at the university. Off the back of this, Tom originated ‘The Best of Bristol’ series. The series entailed the delivery of an open lecture series in which staff who were nominated by students as delivering the most inspiring lectures were then invited to deliver an open lunchtime lecture to students from other courses across the university. As a student-led initiative that was supported by the university, ‘The Best of Bristol’ became a huge success and continues to run as an ongoing series today. 
An inspiring keynote speech from Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA and former Chief Policy Advisor to Tony Blair, called for the contribution of higher education to what he terms, the ‘two big ideas’; namely in addressing the ‘social aspiration gap’ and to gain a better understanding of human motivation in order to address how the supply chain of future citizenship can enable a smoother transition towards achieving core societal aspirations of betterment and upward social mobility. In a directly provocative but astutely perceptive lament, Taylor identified how within the UK, the public are directly orientated in terms of consumption. However, while there is a dogged desire towards consumption and to the pursuit of profit and wealth amongst the general public, there is currently a deficit of the skills and resource necessary for the majority of citizens to achieve this aspirational lifestyle. According to Taylor, this ‘social aspiration gap’ can be evidenced in the growing division between what society desires and what it has the capacity to achieve in realisable terms. In order for society to develop in the aspirational way that its citizens desire, Taylor identified how firstly there was a necessity for a public value-shift from the demands of consumerism and accoutrement-pursuit instead towards an entirely direct engagement with notions of resourcefulness and skills enrichment to make this a possibility. Here Taylor espoused a more thorough link between business development and the nurturing of the ‘supply chain’ whereby rather than a focus upon purely economic benefit, there was a need for the direct engagement with the enrichment and support of business. His rally cry calls for the need to change in order to enhance the future in terms that are ‘pro-social’, ‘engaged’ and ‘resourceful’. To do this Taylor maintains that we need to work towards an understanding of human motivation, in which there is a need to recognise the imitative nature of human beings. Arguing that we largely imitative the behaviour of those around us, to improve as individuals and a society, we need to surround ourselves with ‘better’ people and to foster an encouraging environment in which a realisation of these principles can grow.
When considering the nature of the conference debates and thematic, of whether or not higher education institutions should be considered as belonging in the service of public good or as an economic consumer-orientated business, Taylor maintains that this is not answerable argument. Instead he argues that universities have the responsibility to ‘encourage people to make wise choices.’ In this he argues that there is a necessity to align public desires with their social need, aiming to help the public to make decisions that are for the betterment of both their individual lives, but also for the public good. In this role as benefactor, UK universities are in a position in which they should recognise the need to ‘squeeze’ relationships to encourage consumers to make wise choices, working closely together in terms of co-production and co-creation, in order to help to close the aspirations gap. To this end, he argues that we have a responsibility to ensure that we close the aspirations gap, whilst simultaneously ensuring a maximisation of public interest.
To do so, the university system has to primarily consider how it conceptualises value and the ‘value footprint’ of participation. Here he suggests that a radical change in mindset is necessary for the engagement with conceptions of ‘shared value’ as espoused by the likes of Michael Porter within Harvard Business Review. To this end we need to reconsider our supply chains in terms of the schools and further education colleges who supply our future cohorts of students, but also to reconsider the needs and wants of employers to find what they need from our students, so that we can produce the most employable and effective employees. This involves not only an increased engagement with our future graduates, but right the way down the supply chain, from potential students to their future employers.
To work more effectively as institutions Taylor recommends that we need to think more strategically about what our assets are and how we develop the ways in which we work with those assets. Within the university institution context, we need radically rethink the way we conceptualise both our students and staff as assets, in order to maximise the public value afforded. Taylor identified how HEFCE continues to work towards this in the requirement for demonstrable IMPACTS, however he also advocated the necessity for the nurturing of those facilitators or ‘boundary spanners’ who made possible the connection of university industry links (Williams, 2002). The future success of the UK University education system lay with the development of organisational structures which encourage an environment which fosters enterprise and collaboration, but with that there needs to be a celebration of the social impacts that such an engagement affords.
In order to remain competitive, Taylor called for a radical value shakedown in which a ‘willingness to reengineer values across the entire institution’ were necessary in order to ‘close the aspirations gap’. As an institution, it is the bravery of this commitment to a change in mindset that might just be the call necessary to release the hidden assets at work within academia. At Birmingham City University within the School of Media, we have already begun the move towards a direct embrace of such changes across an investment in future student cohorts through partnership with further education partners, with the forging of industry links and networks across the Professional Studies programme and with the extension of curriculum with our students through Student Academic Partnership. As a School and University who are currently in the process of reconsidering our own value proposition and approach towards managing expectations within the new funding environment, Taylor’s keynote mirrored our aspirations in eloquently articulate terms.
Picking up on themes from the morning’s workshops, the parallel sessions of the afternoon were concerned to tease out the core themes of the morning. The session concerned with examining the public good of higher education was addressed by Heather Fry (Director of Education and Participation, HEFCE) and Jonathon Black (Director of Careers, University of Oxford). Heather provided a robust justification for the development of HEFCE’s new Key Information Sets (KIS), which will be made public in Sept 2012. As a development whose aim is to provide useful and easily accessible information for every undergraduate course of a duration of longer than one year, the KIS will provide easily accessible (and digestible) collated materials combined within one data set. Offering the public and potential students focused and detailed information for each course, the KIS will act as the location for a clear set of information that will enable the public to engage directly with the specialised offers that each university has to offer
Rather than the ‘KIS of death’ as it has been affectionately labelled by some university management systems, instead the KIS sets should be viewed as an opportunity for universities to communicate more broadly with the general public and to prospective students and consumers about the specific skills and attractions that university education has to offer. It offers an opportunity for universities to showcase their institutional talent, to differentiate their product and courses from the competition and to seal it with a KIS.
If there were to be a core set of motivators and value that we took away from the conference, it would be that in order to become better, you need to surround yourself with better people, better processes and a better mindset. (Taylor, 2011) To achieve this ideal and to succeed in this process of betterment, the university education system would need to recognise that innovation and healthy competition is essential if we are to avoid a stagnating university education system and that collaborative ways of working; be that of the education system and its accountability to its public, or through the shared voices of staff and its students, the UK system of university education needs to leave behind its aura of exclusivity and gain an increased public recognition in the value of a university education. This is a particularly prominent issue in light of scheduled fees increase set to impact the next generation of university students. Most importantly for the School of Media team  (Birmingham City University), for us, an awareness and account for the student voice features as a crucial part of that process, particularly as student satisfaction becomes a significant indicator for the courses we run and manage. Communication with industry and students, and a willingness to engage with our core audience and their demands, can only enhance the reputation of the university through a genuine desire to deliver more engaged and employable graduates. 

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