Higher education in the UK is looking for better ways to show the value it creates for students, funders, governors and society. Advance HE (formerly the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education) is working with a pilot group of institutions who are exploring how creating an Integrated Thinking and Reporting (IT&R) framework can help them do this. Ahead of a conference in September, and in the first of a series of blogs, Simon Perks reveals that the pilot is already yielding some illuminating insights.
The ‘Integrated Thinking and Reporting’ project is applying the principles and practice of IT&R to the higher education environment to take account of the interests and expectations of all stakeholders in a holistic approach. It is bringing together various strands of activity in which institutions are already involved, such as student engagement, communication with governors and connecting with their employees.
It is also helping them improve their reporting processes, by encouraging them to think carefully about the information needs of different stakeholders, particularly students, and how these can be accommodated. “Understanding that financial value is not the ‘only game in town’ puts a completely new perspective on how we communicate with stakeholders,” said Scott Allin, vice principal at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama.
The participating institutions, including Newcastle University, Sheffield Hallam University and Abertay University, are already noticing a number of benefits to changing the way they think about and report on their activities. The clear focus in the Integrated Reporting framework on how organisations generate value in the short, medium and long term is helping to put value at the heart of their strategic planning and decision-making processes, and it is leading to a greater focus on the needs of HEIs’ stakeholders, particularly students.
Reassuringly, there is a consensus among the pilot institutions that the adoption of an IT&R approach to thinking and reporting adds genuine value to their activities, rather than simply creating yet another bureaucratic process. And there is a hope that, by developing a sector-driven approach to better reporting on the value that institutions create for their students, the conversation about value across the HE sector will change into something which is much more holistic.
The use of IT&R is not, however, without its challenges. An integrated approach to creating and demonstrating value necessitates a change in how institutions think – and talk – about value. It may also require a reappraisal and realignment of institutions’ visions and strategies, which is not always possible. Furthermore, some of the Integrated Reporting framework terminology needs to be translated or better understood, for and by the higher education audience.
The pilot institutions have also started thinking about the nature and frequency of their reporting, edging from a single annual written statement towards more frequent and more varied reporting and communications targeted at different stakeholder groups. This is in addition to other ways of engaging with these audiences that are more likely to capture and to retain their attention.
More fundamentally, though, the disclosure of a holistic view of positive and less positive aspects of performance – which lies at the heart of an integrated report – may sit uneasily with management and governors alike. Some institutions have concerns about the commercial sensitivity of such information, while others fear the negative publicity that poor performance can bring.
Overall, however, IT&R is having a positive impact within most of the institutions participating in this project. It is changing how they think about the concept of value and giving them a framework to communicate with others about the value they create. It presents all institutions with the opportunity to reframe the way in which students and other stakeholders think about the benefits of higher education. “Enabling students to understand how intellectual capital and social relationships are part of the value proposition will help us to tell our story in way that is congruent with our values, not just meeting the compliance of reporting,” said Professor Neil Marriott, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Winchester.
As Advance HE’s IT&R project progresses, it is stimulating debate and could become a viable sector-driven model for reporting, which meets the needs of universities, their students, staff, governors, funders and regulators alike.
Simon Perks has written two “Getting to Grips With” guides for Advance HE: Getting to Grips With Finance and Getting to Grips with Efficiency. He is the founder of Sockmonkey Consulting.