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Reflections from the ‘other side’


Dr Colette Fletcher has recently taken up the appointment of Head of Consulting & Governance at Advance HE. In this blog, she shares her personal reflections on her experiences and lessons from outside the sector.

I have just returned to higher education (HE) after spending three and a half years as the Head of Governance & Board Secretary at one of the largest Arm’s Length Bodies (ALBs) of Welsh Government, where I was leading their governance transformation programme. Although I have held several voluntary trustee positions in the health, education and charity sectors during my career, this was the first time in nearly 20 years that I have stepped outside of HE for paid employment. It was a very interesting experience and has prompted a lot of self-reflection. Many of us work our way up through the ranks of academia without many opportunities to peer over the HE horizon, so I thought I’d share some of my reflections about life on the other side. I hope you find them thought-provoking, and hopefully somewhat cheering…

I rather naively waved goodbye to HE in 2019 thinking that I couldn’t possibly encounter the same scale of regulatory and funding challenges that HE was facing anywhere else. We all know the funding situation in HE is difficult. Many of you will already have seen the analysis by Mark Corver of Data HE showing that universities have lost a third of their tuition fee income due to inflation since 2012, and almost £3 billion across the sector just in the last 18 months. Back in 2019, when I stepped away from HE, the Office for Students (OfS) had been up and running for just over a year and although it quickly made its mark, there was still a lot of uncertainty about how the regulatory landscape would evolve and what that might mean for institutions and students.

My main reflection of the world beyond HE is that the situation is so much tougher out there. At least in HE we have some small element of control. There are limited opportunities to diversify income and we have a clear legislative and regulatory framework. The financial challenges in our health service, schools, and social care services are all widely publicised, and my experience of the environmental sector was just as hard. They also have some unwieldy and somewhat outdated legislation for their regulators to grapple with. As in HE, staff fight on valiantly, senior leaders make well-argued cases for a more sustainable funding model, and (to be fair) the Ministers listen and do what they can. But there simply isn’t enough cash to go around and inflation and the cost of living crisis are affecting everyone in a perfect storm.

My second observation from three and a half years in the environmental sector is that I fear that we might have left things too late to do anything significant about climate change. The data is open to interpretation, but we seem either perilously close to the tipping point or we’ve already passed it. It seems to me that nothing short of a dramatic change in our approach to environmental sustainability will do anything other than buy the human race a bit more time. In Wales, there is a ground-breaking piece of legislation called the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015). It places a legal obligation on public bodies in Wales to “think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.” There are a number of areas where England could learn from the devolved nations, and this is probably one of them. In the absence of any legislative or regulatory driver across the rest of the UK, I would strongly encourage all HE institutions to consider carefully building on the approach being adopted in Wales and voluntarily engage with the principles of the Act. After all, we play an enormous role in the education of our future generations. If you haven’t yet come across the excellent work of the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (EAUC), please do check out their the EAUC website.