“The complication from a branding perspective is that you can be a fantastically diverse and wide access institution but equally have fantastic results in terms of degree attainment and graduate outcomes. And that’s something we’ve worked a lot on over time – that people beyond the traditional sorts of employers, the public sector employers that universities like mine would serve, recognise the value of our graduates…Now, do I believe that the UK economy is capable of being open-minded to that in all parts? No, I don’t. I think that’s hugely detrimental to the ‘UK plc’. So long as there is academic excellence, so long as there is confidence in academic standards, you have to step outside of some of the preconceptions you have as an employer and as a member of the UK economy.”
Diversity means demographic diversity as well as diversity in thinking, experiences and approaches. However, it means something different to different people, broadening the scope of the challenge faced by institutions like Coventry that shoot for an inclusive academic community. “Participation,” says Ian, “is a very different concept on the international scale. Yes there are still, in certain groups internationally, a hierarchical understanding of how universities fit into the grand scheme of things. But the bonds are much less powerful in that situation. It takes a long time to figure out all of the hang-ups of an education system.”
“There are other factors of course that are really important about ensuring quality. That means safety and quality of outcome in terms of ‘value for money’ – I’m investing this huge amount of money as an international student to travel to the UK, to live in the UK, to study in the UK. I need certain things out of that for the experience to be transformational.”
The issue of quality outcomes is made all the more complex on campuses that seek to diversify. As Ian explains, quality “means a number of things” depending on your point of view. Even the move from undergraduate to postgraduate creates new needs that many institutions fail to consider.
“For the 35 or 40 year olds who are career changers, they have a very different set of needs. We need to think about all student communities, not just one. Especially these days including the commuting population, if I’m commuting to a university an hour and a half each way for a one-hour seminar, is that really a good use of my time?”
The interplay between competing priorities around diversity and quality have encouraged the leadership at Coventry to take on innovative solutions, including technology changes and a renewed focus on pedagogy. Ian believes rising interest in teaching methods across the higher education sector marks a new era for leaders. “There’s a lot of innovation going on at Coventry,” he says, as the university continues to invest in learning designers and pedagogical specialists to improve on existing teaching processes.
“Delivery of content isn’t what brings teaching to life.”