[From Gareth Duxbury, Principal Consultant & Head of the Higher Education Practice at Society]

Our company is fortunate to work closely with universities around the world. Whilst from within the sector, everyone understands the complexity and scale of institutions, and thus the impact Higher Education has on nearly every aspect of society, that is still somewhat misunderstood amongst the general population. For example, in the United Kingdom the perception still lingers that Higher Education is a series of purely public institutions and in many ways just an extension of the state. But the reality is that Higher Education Institutions are now mostly large, fiercely independent, multi-faceted businesses with income streams stemming from a multitude of sources, both domestically and internationally. In many ways, an average contemporary University is more complex than an average FTSE 350 company.

For all of us, 2020 has been a year of tumultuous change borne out of necessity. Firstly, we have been required to respond to a pandemic. Secondly, we have been faced with the stark and pressing need to address longstanding structural, systemic racism and inequality. The Higher Education sector has been shaken to its core by both of these developments.

2021 will be a tumultuous year too, but hopefully in a far more positive way. There will be a multitude of challenges and opportunities facing institutions, leaders, and all members of the HE community. But if institutions can reflect, pare back, and simplify, then there are now significant reasons to feel optimistic.

It’s tempting to reel off a long list of priorities for the sector in 2021 –defining the future of teaching and learning, responding to continued concentration of research funding, tackling climate change, reimaging physical campuses, addressing student/staff wellbeing, confronting pay inequality, simply balancing the books, and so on and so on... All of these things are undoubtedly important. But I would argue that there are two priorities in particular that should be placed above all others – two priorities that are so fundamental in their nature, that they almost underpin everything else.

  • Equality, Diversity and Inclusion – In any order, these words must be more than lip-service paid in the aftermath of shocking events. Institutions, leaders, and communities must urgently confront the difficult and often painful inequalities and biases that exist within the sector and work relentlessly to eradicate them. Equality of access must meet equality of opportunity, and every process, structure, and behaviour should be focused on this. Until the global Higher Education sector makes significant progress in this area, it will lack the capacity and the legitimacy to reimagine its future.
  • Articulating the Positive Externalities of Education – Over recent years there has been a lot of talk about ‘purpose’ within the corporate world, whilst the Higher Education sector has allowed its own narrative to become increasingly convoluted and commoditised. The sector needs to rediscover its reason for being, and the benefit it can provide to individuals, to communities, and to society. We must be reminded of the power and potential that education has to transform lives and to be a force for good. Once that is more firmly established in people’s minds again, then it will become easier to address many of the other challenges that currently present themselves.

In 2021, the world will indelibly change once more. If Higher Education institutions can get on the front foot in these two areas, then they will be able to do so much to direct that change and to make the world a better place in the process. In our small way, we hope we can continue to support them.