Friday, 28 March 2014

Dealing with uncertainty

A really excellent blog post by Gavan Conlon on wonkhe got me thinking about uncertainty within the higher education sector. Gavan’s post was about the RAB charge for tuition fee loans, which turns out to be higher (at the moment) than had been forecast. But also about the longer term changes to the higher education sector which arise from the policy changes.

This is just one example of the uncertainties around UK higher education at the moment. Let’s name check a few of them:


  • Will international students keep coming to the UK given growing HE sectors elsewhere, and the current government’s hostile stance to migration?
  • Will universities be able to regain steady patterns of student recruitment, or is the current system volatility set to continue?
  • How much further will research funding be concentrated after REF, and will this make research unsustainable in some universities?
  • What will the disruption to established patterns of higher education from the internet be? Is it MOOCs, or some other disruption yet to come?


There’s lots to be said about each of these, but that isn’t the point of what I want to say (not today, anyway!). The point is, that no-one who works in or cares about universities can act as if some basic assumptions won’t ever change. And this is a problem, because universities operate on a long cyclical model. For example, the students graduating in summer 2014 with an undergraduate degree, after 3 years of study, entered university in 2011, on promises made in a prospectus which was signed off in autumn 2009. Before Browne, before tuition fees, before austerity budgets.

So universities have to adapt to events, but they carry a heavy burden of commitments which make his hard, and which place burdens on staff who are very busy just delivering the day-to-day. (If universities are sometimes seen as slow to change, I think this is one of the reasons)

There’s no magic wand which will protect a university, or a team, or a person in a university, from change. But there are things you can do to help you prepare. Here’s three things you can do

1. Keep reading news.  And thinking about it.  By the time something is a headline it’s too late to avoid it, but by looking into what’s behind the headlines, and thinking a bit about what factors are driving developments, you can see further into the future.  The film Armageddon is a bit like this (honestly!)  If you nudge the asteroid far enough away from earth, it flies past harmlessly, but if you wait too long it’s gonna get you.

2. Scenario planning: imagine a few futures – in the five year horizon works well – and think about what would have to happen for that to come true, and what would be the implications if it did. So, for instance, suppose that in five years MOOCs are a dominant form of learning in higher education: a higher completion rate; reliable ways found to assess performance. If it were like this, who wouldn’t follow courses from Harvard and Yale? So universities would need to think about changing the teaching model, to focus perhaps on small group teaching as an adjunct to online lectures (welcome back, blended learning!) And to find ways to award credit for MOOCs. Will this happen? Personally, I doubt it, but if you were, for instance, responsible for quality assurance processes in a university, you might want to look at your APL rules to see how much use they would be in this scenario.

3. Keep yourself lean: I don’t mean exercise more, but lean in the sense of the processes that you use. Do you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and have you thought about what effort you might be wasting doing things that don’t need to be done? Some of that’s about priorities, but some if it is just about being efficient. Here’s a clear introduction from the Cardiff University's Lean University team about what lean is and is about – there’s lessons and benefits for all of us.

So there’s three steps: read the future, think about it in a structured way, clear the decks so you can react.

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