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What is the real value of higher education? Advance HE challenges universities to adopt integrated thinking.

Posted 24 February, 2020

What is the value of higher education?” was the final question posed to both panelists and an audience comprising representatives of some of the UK’s most influential universities at Advance HE’s annual ‘Let’s Talk Value’ (LTV) Conference.

This discussion was the culmination of a full day of questioning, discovery, and ultimately, reframing of the value of the UK’s Higher Education sector through the concepts of integrated thinking and reporting. In adopting integrated reporting, universities are forging a new understanding of how they use and positively (or negatively) impact human, social, intellectual, natural resources and relationships.

Participants at the conference had been led through a series of discussions designed not only to educate, but also determine a collective purpose for the UK’s universities and higher education sector.

The opening keynote talk was given by Professor Julia Buckingham, Vice Chancellor and President, Brunel University and President, Universities UK. Buckingham set the tone for the conference with a revealing statistic from Universities UK’s recent survey of students at British Universities that, “8 out of 10 students think the government should do more about communicating the benefits and value of studying at university.” She continued that behind this statistic lies the truth that students, once they graduate, are really looking for the value of a university degree beyond earning potential… this is the reality universities are now facing.

This drove to the heart of the participants’ discussions: what is the purpose of not only their universities and its courses, but more fundamentally, Buckingham posed, what is the true purpose and value of going to university? And how do you communicate that value?

This was followed by the first panel session, ‘Communicating Value and telling your HE story better’, with Sallie Pilot of Black Sun, Monica Chadha, Vice Chair of Queen Mary University of London, and Chuchu Nwagu, Student Voice Co-ordinator, University of West London on the Panel.

The conversation continued with the theme of the re-evaluation of the value of a university degree by students, and how universities can better understand its student’s comprehension of the value they get from university, and critically, how to communicate that value.

Crucial to this, Sallie Pilot said it’s important to remember that students are now much more interested in the culture and values of an organisation, so organisations must develop those sources, to make them more prepared for the future. And that like corporations globally, higher education organisations must address the gap in “authenticity as you cannot have a gap between what you say and what you do”.

The second session, ‘Integrating sustainability strategy to demonstrate wider value’ was chaired by Phil McNaull from the University of Edinburgh, Professor Carol Adams, Durham University, who was broadcast in live from Australia, Sharon Machado, Director of ACCA, and Professor Eunice Simmons, Vice Chancellor at the University of Chester.

The panel covered a number of issues, including integrated reporting in the higher education sector in the UK and beyond; approaches to integrating sustainable development risks and opportunities into strategy and disclosures on the SDGs, and recent developments and examples from outside the HE sector, where they are bringing sustainable development considerations into the wider organisational strategy.

Two major themes came through. The first looked at how organisations interact and communicate with stakeholders. In order to thoroughly integrate disclosure on the UN 2030 SDGs, Professor Carol Adams commented, “There needs to be a collaboration between staff and students”. This theme of collaboration [with students] emerged in all of the discussions, underlying its importance to revealing and shaping the value of higher education organisations.

The second theme was for organisations to take the long-term, not short-term view when establishing their value. Universities have long been ranked based on their courses to deliver employability, and ultimately, a strong salary after graduating. Live from Australia, Professor Carol Adams, argued against this idea and instead said organisations must communicate how it, and its students, will create long term value. Iterating that we need to move away from measuring universities based on a short term ranking matrix, to allow them to embrace how they are really creating longer term sustainable value for all their key stakeholders.

Phil McNaull, Strategic Finance Consultant, Former FD at The University of Edinburgh then shared his own experiences of developing integrated reports and how you get going. His recommendations included:

Start thinking about integrated thinking

To start, many find it useful to first adopt integrated thinking, rather than going straight into producing an integrated report. Integrated thinking is crucial for any organisation if it wishes to evolve and shift the way its value is produced from short term to long term – an integrated report is the output of that.

Walk the talk

Dont just say youre going to do this and that it will show up as a superficial connection between the capitals in your integrated report. Go and out and speak to your stakeholders and other organisations about developing your integrated thinking and understand the capitals in relation to your business model, and the outputs and outcomes you seek to deliver.

Tell your story better by looking at and changing your language to be consistent

A lot of preparatory work needs to be done to encourage the leadership team to be aligned. Accountants language can be strong and so sometimes it needs to be made more palatable. Its important to also have your communications team involved, as much of this is about making your integrated report easy to read.

The International Integrated Reporting Council is proud to work with Advance HE as they engage with universities across the UK to develop a new understanding of the concept of value creation, embed the International Integrated Reporting Framework and discuss new innovations, approaches and opportunities for communicating effectively with key stakeholders.