Innovation in Higher Education – more than a MOOC?

By Andy Westwood –

We all want more innovation. It’s a holy grail for politicians, businesses, consumers and increasingly for public services too. We want to do things differently and we understand the value of doing things differently. This is equally true in the delivery of new technology as it is in manufacturing, science, the arts, retail, health or education. Well-functioning markets and competition depend on it and recent reforms to English higher education are designed to create more of both, although neither may be going quite as planned. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT), soon to be the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), are likely to investigate the perceived lack of competition between universities, but they might do better to think about a lack of innovation instead.

Because innovation may well be the lacuna at the heart of higher education reform. That’s not to say that universities don’t spend a lot of time thinking about innovation, researching or teaching it, as well as bidding for innovation funding to do new things. There’s a growing evidence base – the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) is successful, but very small. Andrew Witty in his recent review, recommended its significant expansion. But it doesn’t really stimulate innovation as such – rather it supports universities that work with businesses and communities and that gain significant income from such activities. That’s not quite the same thing. More significant perhaps has been the Catalyst Fund – also operated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to support institutions who are looking at changing what they do. This too needs to be much bigger.

Because we don’t turn our growing innovation expertise in on ourselves enough, we still largely deliver a traditional higher education experience, designed primarily around traditional students. The new funding system – which is innovative too – preserves rather than challenges this orthodoxy. Indeed, the big policy question for the next few years already appears to be how the increasing costs of further preserving and expanding such a model can be met.

In 2011 the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Vince Cable, in what has become a rare intervention on HE policy, said: ‘I expect to see, in a university sector faced with the onset of more competition and more demanding students, a ferment of creative thinking on how to redesign course structures and manage major change among staff so as to promote higher quality but lower-cost teaching. I may be missing something, but I haven’t seen much evidence of this.’

He hasn’t made many speeches on Higher Education since. At that time Cable may have been primarily concerned with the lack of price competition rather than innovation in delivery. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for a moment. How much innovation can really be seen in what we do and how we do it? Co-creating services? Users driving an innovative curriculum or student experience, new research methods or funding, new ways to teach? What about new forms or pricing for part-time, intensive or mixed mode learning? The British system tends more to the monolithic than most other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, where diversity across institutions, ages, modes of study and institutional focus is typically much broader.

Is that a good thing? Should we be concerned? Well, yes. Concentrating so heavily on the three year degree, largely studied by school leavers living away from home, is pretty expensive whether you deliver funding through grants or loans. Economically it’s also a bit too ‘linear’ in that it places most people’s consumption of higher education at the point in their lives between school and entering the labour market full -time.

This potentially restricts relationships between universities and the labour market and increases the chances of mismatched supply and demand in both learned and utilised skills, as well as in graduate and employer expectations. In a system based on a graduate premium and repayment only after reaching a wage threshold, it also threatens the funding settlement itself.

Most strategic plans adopted by universities to confront a perfect storm of new policy, as well as social, economic and technological change, rely on a combination of increasing market share (mainly amongst school leavers), rising up favoured league tables, recruiting a few more international students and investing in the student experience. All valid and important of course, but there doesn’t seem to be much variation beyond these basic ingredients or ambitions.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that not every institution can succeed if they are aiming at the same things. League tables and school leaver recruitment markets are zero or less than zero sum games. In the first year of new number controls even Russell Group universities noticed this in the scrum for students with AAB A-level (or equivalent) grades. With a rapidly declining cohort of 18 year olds – falling by some 14 per cent between now and 2020 – this might cause concern in all types of institution. All in all, we are specialising in a traditional HE model – a ‘rite of passage’ between school and working life. We don’t put anywhere near as much thought into part-time or even to post-graduate education. It is a worrying gap in our strategic thinking. As a sector we have defended our autonomy ‘at all costs’, but in reality might we also have been defending our long-standing model of delivering higher education?

We shouldn’t lose the traditional model. But ultimately it may prove to be a costly mistake if we try to concentrate an overwhelming majority of our resources – as well as our student experiences –through such a route. Traditional education values and models have their place. It is after all, what the Secretary of State Michael Gove aspires to recreate and reinforce at his Department for Education (DfE). He wants to create new institutions to stimulate innovation and competition, but he also can’t help dictating the content of qualifications and the curriculum, as well as teacher training practice along the way. And whether his reforms are right or wrong, it’s clear from his exchange with the DfE Select Committee in 2012, that he doesn’t quite grasp averages or rankings:

Chair: If “good” requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?
Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.
Chair: So it is possible, is it?
Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.
Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?

The most common thing that comes to mind when we think about innovation in HE (especially disruptive innovation) is the MOOC. It may ultimately prove to be so, but British universities have been lukewarm in their welcome for the concept – even those signing up for Future Learn. The Open University – perhaps the most notable exception to many rules – had a number of critics when it was launched. Wouldn’t the money have been better spent on existing institutions, asked leaders and commentators at the time?

‘I have worked on many different areas of the public sector over the past 30 years. The biggest lesson I have learned is that the most powerful driver of reform is to let new providers into the system. They do things differently in ways none can predict. They drive reform across the sector. It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats.’

The Higher Education Minister David Willetts, in this 2011 speech to Vice Chancellors may have been thinking the same as both Harold Wilson and Lionel Robbins at various points in the 1960s – the idea that we may need to do things differently and to innovate in the way we deliver higher education. Particularly if now as well as then, we want many people to go to university or to get degrees. But David Willetts and Vince Cable have overseen an even greater concentration on the dominant full time undergraduate model as part-time and post-graduate enrolments have dropped sharply since 2010.

Placing so much emphasis on the full-time undergraduate experience – and so much funding through it – has reduced political, institutional and individual thinking about anything else. There are some exceptions to this rule – institutions that are thinking and doing things differently – but not very many. The time is right for more universities to think about how the study of innovation might apply to them. How innovative can they be? How innovative must they be? More than at present.

Andy Westwood is Chief Executive of GuildHE and President of the OECD Forum for Social Innovation.

GuildHE is a UK representative body for higher education.

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