Solid blocks versus blurred lines

Image by Elle's Dad, Flickr

We humans like putting things in order.  From an early age we are taught that all things have a place.  When we are faced with complex problems, we seek to create schemas and organise findings in a way that will aid our understanding.  This is all well and good except that sometimes this approach is in danger of missing the point.  In the case of universities, this can be a particular problem due to the broad spectrum they cover, both in terms of societal impact and in terms of diversity of institution.  The fact is that much of the value to be found in a university cannot be measured or categorised despite our preoccupation with this.

The recent report by HEPI, The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities, is a case in point.  The main focus of the press coverage was on contact hours, ignoring the much broader coverage of the report itself, but why has this focus on contact hours stuck? I think it is precisely because the real university experience can be so broad and varied that the more tangible stuff, such as contact hours, can be easier to hold onto.  That is not to say that data and helping people to navigate between different universities and their offering isn’t important, it is just that this will never be the whole picture.

“Not to say that data and helping people to navigate between different universities and their offering isn’t important, it is just that this will never be the whole picture.” 

The University Alliance project, More than just a degree: stories of empowered students, published last year proved to be a fantastic opportunity to explore this issue with students from Alliance universities.  Following a series of in-depth interviews, their stories brought to life a diverse picture of rich experiences driven by the unique aspirations and choices of each individual student.  Their stories were about so much more than lectures, seminars and essays. They were about building confidence, taking ownership and making the most of what was on offer to create a personalised experience that they were fully in charge of.

Our preoccupation with putting things in order can also mean that we do not recognise or make the most of the full role universities can play across our society.  For example, another University Alliance project, Growing the future: universities leading, changing and creating the regional economy, demonstrated the integrated and comprehensive way that universities are playing a role across society, as more than simply providers of skills and research.

These issues have been high in my thoughts again this week as we launch university_vision, which is aiming to explore the issues and challenges facing universities in the future and to challenge our thinking in terms of where the sector should position itself.  In the early workshops, held to explore these issues with colleagues across the sector and from wider society, an incredibly diverse picture is already emerging that is again difficult to capture adequately.  When we ask the question about where universities position themselves we find ourselves making linkages across government agendas and global challenges.

Given the challenges that the UK is currently trying to tackle, surely it is critical to embrace this centrality more than ever and to engage people with it in order to make sure that we don’t overlook these strengths just because they can be a bit blurry.

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