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10th January, 2020

‘Mission creep’ and the Frameworks ‘trinity’ in higher education

Mark Gray

‘Mission creep’ entered our vocabulary in the 1990s following the gradual expansion of US and UN operations from humanitarian assistance to military engagement in Somalia without, apparently, any very systematic thinking about what to stop doing once escalation and extension of the mission was agreed.

‘Mission creep’ for universities, though, has a longer history. The Robbins Committee (1963) thought the objectives of HEIs should be delivering ‘instruction…for employment’, ‘promoting the general powers of the mind’, ‘advancing learning’ and (curiously Orwellian, perhaps) ‘transmitting a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. By the time of the Dearing Report (1997) government suggested in addition ‘adult lifetime learning to enable individuals, employers and the nation as a whole to adapt to changing circumstances’, ‘advancing research [as well as learning]’ and ‘serving local and regional communities, as well as national interests at home and abroad’. The Browne Report (2010) added ‘[to] generate and diffuse ideas, safeguard knowledge, catalyse innovation, inspire creativity, enliven culture, stimulate regional economies and strengthen civil society’. Since 2010 first HEFCE and now UKRI and OfS have added other strategic aims to the list – universities have been asked, for example, to be ‘anchors of regional growth’, act as an element of Britain’s soft power through cultural and educational export, and engage in ‘cultural diplomacy’.

In short, the expectations we place on our universities have grown significantly since the first expansion of the sector nearly 60 years ago. Little has been taken off the table while subsidiary mandates (policing radicalisation, ensuring free speech, contributing local cultural leadership and so on) have been added from time to time. So when the trinity of ‘frameworks’ governing perceptions of what universities do and how they do it – the REF, the TEF and, from this year, the KEF – become the focus of performance measurement and strategic focus in HEIs, what happens to the dizzying ‘mission creep’? Will it be halted?

In one sense it can’t. Universities – however effectively ‘privatised’ their income has become as the proportion of direct fee payments from students on the one hand and industry income from research and knowledge exchange on the other have  risen – remain public institutions regulated by agencies of Secretaries of State. You’d think that accountability for a settled and limited set of mandates might be in the interests of both government and universities, and that it is not at all clear that ‘mission creep’ at the behest of ministers serves any very useful purpose anyway. In general universities struggle to manage their finances, their performance and their reputation in the face of change, but more ‘mission creep’ for the sector can’t be accommodated easily as the span of control required to deliver it grows. For ministers, though, adding another ‘requirement’ to the sector’s list of deliverables is relatively straightforward – possibly too straightforward. After all universities are jolly useful, pretty unpopular (and so can be blamed if they fail to deliver public benefits), and there are even some sector players that actually want mission creep.

To make matters worse the multiple missions of HEIs require different skills, knowledge and management infrastructure to help deliver them. If government wants to add a new mission focus it probably means more specialist expertise and hence more people, and a greater span of control over staff for senior teams – and that in turn means potentially more dissonance, more resource and time.

So KEF, REF and TEF as organising frameworks for many but not all of the current missions are helpful (whatever their detail) if – and it is a big ‘if’ – government can resist the temptation to allow more mission creep to follow in the wake of their introduction. If it can, ‘the trinity’ can become the basis for more effective management of multiple missions. Key performance indicators, strategies, line management, strategic leadership might all emanate from and fall back into one of the three frameworks. If it can’t resist the temptation, universities will be left to shoehorn additional mandates and objectives into the three frameworks or expand the span of control of senior teams further – and probably add to running costs.

Perhaps as KEF hoves into view and the trinity is complete the question we should be asking is, ‘What should we no longer ask universities to do, and what elements of our national story will we in future excuse them from playing a part in delivering?’

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