Saturday, 24 September 2011

When is a sector not a sector?

‘When is a door not a door?’ begins the old joke. ‘When it’s ajar!’ concludes the groan-inducing line. As Christmas cracker japes go it is pretty poor, and that is truly saying something. However the basic play on words is something that should be looked within the realm of the HE ‘sector’.

What is a sector? It may seem, like the joke, a rather simplistic question to ask. But for its future strategic direction the definition of what constitutes the HE sector must be looked into.

A sector is defined as a group of organisations that ultimately have the same mission and that, importantly, contribute a significant slice of the economic capital of a country. Isn’t it nice, even in semantic terms, for the sectors awesome economic contribution to British GDP to be acknowledged? But look under the hood and the plethora of different agendas is pulling various institutions across the HE spectrum of service delivery so little cohesion can be discerned.

Teaching or research-intensive? Politically aligned or independent? Private or public? Arts or STEM based? Specialist or general courses? Academic or vocational? The list goes on. What benefit do the 165 HEIs get from being labelled in sector-specific terms? It’s like a family. The parents may definitely be yours, but the children have been separated and raised independent from one another. Their personalities and philosophies are different. Their value systems and internal practices are unlikely to be similar. Academic and professional support structures are hardly carbon copies and standardisation for ultimate national quality control is unheard of.

And that’s just what is so powerful and simultaneously so weak about the HE ‘sector’ – it’s ability to manage its affairs relatively devoid from external influences, but it’s clunky difficulty in evolving quickly and efficiently to meet the challenges of the new world order.

Through the intended increase in competition, our sector is transforming into a conglomerate of loosely related institutions that conceptualise, develop and effectively manufacture different ‘things’. This ‘thing’ is of course a course and creates the parameters for an individual to theoretically improve their skill set ready for entry into the world of work.

So does this make higher education an industry rather than a sector? As the marketisation of higher education begins to take hold, demand will be led by the students to whatever course they perceive will most likely enhance their employability prospects. There will be, of course, a handful who will still continue to pursue non-compulsory education purely for the sake of learning, but with the dearth of negative media coverage of the funding changes I can’t see them being the majority. As courses and degrees ever-increasingly become commodities to be traded and sold to the highest bidder, higher education institutions will proceed towards a future defined by the quality and quantity of output and the return on investment for the students and the taxpayer.

Sounds awfully like an industry doesn’t it? 

The perception of the value of HE and the perception of the value of an institutional individual profile (internationally, research, teaching etc.) and the individualisation of each will determine the popularity of the 'sector'. But unless a common mission and agreed lobbying angle can be ascertained then a difficulty of government in deciding HE policy will come from the disunity of our industry.

We should try to fix this.

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