2 June 2023
Vice-Chancellor and CEO of Harper Adams University, Professor Ken Sloan, wrote this guest blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) examining diversity in the UK Higher Education system - and how it can be maintained.
I welcome the recent paper by Edward Venning Size is Everything: What Small, Specialist and Practice Based Providers tell us about the Higher Education Sector (HEPI Report 160). It helpfully reignites a debate about what the shape and nature of the UK’s higher education sector looks like, and – perhaps somewhat worryingly – suggests what it is at risk of becoming without some definitive steps in institutional definitions, funding and regulation.
I come at this discussion not only as Vice-Chancellor of one the UK’s leading small and specialist providers, but also having held senior roles in two internationally respected institutions: the University of Warwick and Monash University.
Harper Adams is certainly the smallest at under 5,000 students, Warwick would come next at its current 28,600 (somewhat larger than the 13,750 when I started), and then Monash at approximately 86,000 students. They all award degrees up to doctoral level, they all hold university title and they are all respected. Yet, they are fundamentally different.
Venning’s paper discusses the benefits and limitations associated with different sizes and scales of institution but, importantly, discusses the benefits and limitations associated with institutions that have a different purpose, a different mission and a different contribution to make to the provision of higher education as a whole. In the end it must come down to a key question: does institutional diversity matter? Unsurprisingly, I would argue that it does.
I am reminded of my first day at Harper Adams University.
Having conducted 38 hours of informal and formal meetings and interviews to get the job entirely online from Australia, my first day was also my first full day on campus. I quickly had to recalibrate from the epic scale of Monash. Teams that at Warwick or Monash would have double digits of employees were often one or sometimes two people deep. The overall budget of the institution was the equivalent of the operating surplus of some of its largest counterparts. The campus is well equipped with outstanding specialist facilities, but did not have the more general community focused facilities often seen elsewhere: performance arts centres, large mixed-use sports centres, sculpture parks, galleries, cinemas, multitudes of shared learning spaces or a broad choice of eateries. All things that I admittedly took for granted at both Warwick and Monash despite knowing how hard both institutions worked to develop and afford them.
A key question arose: was Harper Adams a lesser university without them?
I very quickly moved from seeing what Harper Adams University didn’t have to what it did have. Highly satisfied students, student employability rates at c.98 per cent, relatively low levels of complaints, employees who were entrenched in and passionate about the institution’s mission and purpose.
My first hour involved a tour of campus from a student from Ireland. While I was grappling with the downsize shift in scale, this student remarked that her biggest surprise on arrival was how big the University was compared to the village she had left. That shift in scale had been an initial challenge for her but the intimate community feel very quickly settled her, and those who shared that view, into campus and community life.
I spent time in my first week in some of the classes. Unannounced. It was refreshing not to have to organise a formal visit to departments or classes but to see people who were happy with me popping in and observing, asking students questions, finding out what their experience was and what they would change if they had the chance. What hit me was how grounded the classes and research I observed were in real-world application. No less rigorous, no less challenging, but designed through a practice-based pedagogical approach which imagined students in an employment context and prepared them for it. And after 25 years at two institutions which have achieved remarkable outcomes through scale and quality, Harper Adams was no less remarkable. Just different. Its students say so, as do its alumni (many of whom have also studied at larger institutions) and its industry partners.
Venning is right to highlight that there are significant barriers to the future sustainability of some of the smaller, specialist and practice-based institutions. Costs have risen at an aggressively faster rate than income diversification has developed. Thankfully, we have benefited from the Office for Students’ World leading specialist provider designation and funding, but many have not. All institutions have gone through and continue to face the burden of a regulatory system which, however risk-based, is focused on institutions delivering on common outcomes, regulated in common, with little or no serious consideration of the risk that this approach to regulation can have on the capacity to deliver when it is often the same post-holders doing all of it. I understand the rationale why this is the approach. I would argue that if sustaining institutional diversity matters, and I believe it does, then this needs more serious and determined consideration by all regulators and funding bodies.
Venning is also right to state that there are choices to be made by these smaller, specialist institutions. Networks, joint ventures, joining group structures, mergers and shared services are all possibilities. Evaluating such options needs capacity and time. They are best considered when the sun is shining rather than when the roof is leaking as they need to lead to good decisions, not just urgent ones, and preferably not in crisis. This necessitates some thought on the medium-term shape of the system not just what funding looks like over the next year. GuildHE has been very effective in stimulating these discussions and making the case for policy adaptation and system change but I think the Treasury and the Department for Education in particular need to take a more active interest in sustaining diversity of institutions in the sector. With the challenges and opportunities of climate change and artificial intelligence (AI) being faced, to name but two, it should not be the case that size, specialism or pedagogical focus should be a determinant of whether you can navigate, exploit and survive. The determinants should be quality, impact and demand. Students and academics need choice, and that diversity of setting should be preserved.
For Harper Adams, the path forward is to retain its independence and identity but to maximise the benefits of collaboration to deliver that.
It is why our new strategic plan is called ‘Together, We Will Make The Difference’. We already have this through our innovative new Vet School with Keele University and our partnership with Morrisons, McDonald’s and the NFU to deliver our School of Sustainable Food and Farming among many examples.
Our short and direct lines to industry are what delivered the world first Hands Free Hectare - now Hands-Free Farm -and will deliver the next generation of technology that follows it. It is also what contributes to such positive employability outcomes.
In his recently published chapter entitled ‘Why are Australian universities so large?’ Glyn Davis says:
Australian universities do not choose their economic model. Key decisions are determined by the federal government led by the prime minister. Those decisions, embedded in federal policy, constrain options … A system with more varied institutions, some large and some small, some comprehensive and others specialist, commuter or residential, may have more scope for experimentation and rapid evolution … Scale already shapes much that happens at the Australian public university; we might hope it is not the only choice.’
Our system has lost some of its diversity but more than 20 per cent of its providers are small, specialist or practice based and they make a distinctive and valued contribution.
Sustaining this diversity will not come through mono-regulatory approaches and depreciating funding models. It will come through deliberate system settings and an environment that encourages all types of institutions to survive based on the quality and impact of what they do, regardless of size or purpose – not their scale or their buying power.
The question is: who is willing to reset the system?