Opinion: Innovation in Universities

Alan Sutherland, CEO at Surrey SU considers why innovation is so slow in UK HE

August is very much the ‘Golden Hour’ for those of us who are lucky enough to work in Student Unions. This is the time (depending on what sort of University you are in) that there is a dearth of undergraduates, and the new sabbatical team are now comfortable in their new environment and churning out a host of new iniatives. A lot of these ideas will inevitably fall by the wayside, but it is the culture and enthusiasm of innovation here that is important.

The real crucible of student ideas is of course the annual elections which is all about who can innovate, persuade, and cajole their vision of what needs to be done differently. When the winning candidates assume their roles, they are then supported to deliver on what was promised when they were candidates. Some Unions don’t actually make a huge effort to follow through on election promises, but I am proud to say Surrey Union does. Each officer is supported by a dedicated member of staff, who will help them and their part time officer team deliver as far as possible what was promised.

Some of the things many students now take for granted were at one time simply a bullet point on a manifesto:

  • 24hr library opening
  • University lettings agency
  • Nightbus
  • Student Voice Forum
  • Annual Varsity
  • Enhanced support for wellbeing

All these, and more incremental improvements came about either directly as an election idea or as an evolution of a manifesto point. Anyone who works in a University will also know that change does not come about overnight – indeed some of these things appeared long after the officer who proposed it had shuffled off to a glittering career elsewhere, and that is the interesting point. When an officer team want to introduce an internal innovation, one which is defined exclusively to the Union, it can invariably be introduced in that academic year, but when that innovation touches the University it may take many more months to introduce

Why is it hard to innovate at speed in a University?

The answer here is two fold, money, and risk.

Why can a Union decide on an idea then do it? Quite simply, the University has already stumped up the money to make it happen. There is practically no financial risk to trying out new ideas as the annual block grant will sustain any calamities if it goes wrong. As we know, where there is innovation, there is often failure and who provides the backstop if a University needs to fund an idea like putting a new campus on the moon?

At one time, that would have been HEFCE, the practical remit of which was as their name suggests – fund higher education insititutions. Sometimes, HEFCE would just make money available to ‘see what would happen’ as in the case of the CETL funding which made over £300m available over five years. Alternatively if you had a madcap idea you could apply to the HEFCE Catalyst fund, which in the last year of its existence sat at £30m (still a far cry from the £60m annual funding for CETL).

The now diminshed £20m catalyst fund should now be used (according to Sam Gyimah) to

“…to have regard to how the higher education sector supports the Government’s broader economic policy as defined by the Industrial Strategy, in particular relating to the skills and employability of graduates from all backgrounds”

This is an important shift, where the fund is now an extension of current government policy and is falling in line with their current thinking that University only leads to a graduate salary. The irony of course is the funding council for higher education which was a council that funded higher education, has been replaced by the Office for Students whose job is it to impose and promote government policy on HE institutions through controlled access to money. This has created a very bizare inverse nationalisation where Universities are now effectively private, having to exist on their market attractiveness, but have a regulator who is increasing a market based vice like grip on their activities and outputs. This is what is now creating the risk averse nature in Universities.

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With the decrease in teaching funding over the years Universities have to rely on the tuition loan income to survive, and as that has been frozen, this leads to the challenge of recruiting more students from a diminishing pool to survive.

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This perfect storm of reduced central funding, diminishing student base, and market effects of league tables has a paralysing effect on University innovation. This risk is simply too great to try something new, or even slightly different in case it causes an alarmist headline.

I get work on the campus that 5G is being developed, a truly incredible research project that will change the world, and one which was funded heavily by HEFCE.

So while a 24 hour library, or a lettings agency may seem like small changes to you – however, imagine if the safety net of financial protection was spread out beneath the nations Universities and what they would be able to bring to bear for the public good with the right encouragement?

That would be something to be excited about.

This piece was originally published on linkedin

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