We need to talk… to students

A group of students working in a groupStudents lie at the heart of our higher education institutions. And it is the success of its students that will determine a university’s ability to thrive. In the third of our series about integrated thinking and reporting, Simon Perks asks how can universities better understand the needs of their students and how can students engage in a productive discussion about the ‘value’ that a university education represents?

Advance HE is looking at how higher education insititutions (HEIs) are taking an holistic approach to stakeholder engagement as part of the integrated thinking and reporting project (IT&R). Ten HEIs are participating in this pilot project and recently met to consider the need for students to engage in discussions and decisions around value creation and its reporting.

Andrew Connolly, chief financial officer at the University of Exeter says that the reason Exeter is involved in this project is because the sector has “consistently failed to convey to students how research and inspired teaching creates value, and by the way, measuring it is even harder”.

These were among the issues discussed at the recent IT&R workshop when the project participants set out to explore how they can use the principles of the international integrated reporting framework to communicate more effectively with students and other stakeholders. You can read more about putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation here.

“The first thing to realise,” explained Rhys Dart, chief executive of the Students’ Union at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, “is that there is no such thing as ‘the student perspective’.

“All students are different and they all have differing views. They value different things. And they make decisions in different ways.”

Furthermore, says Rhys, your students probably do not read your annual report. Instead, prospective and current students get information from online chatrooms, National Student Survey results, Teaching Excellence (and Student Outcomes) Framework (TEF) rating, university guides and league tables. They also seek advice from parents, peers, older siblings, teachers and school careers advisers – some of whom may even be alumni of your institution.

The problem, suggests the group, is that HEIs have very little direct control over any of these channels of communication. And most of them provide little in the way of context to explain why, for example, you got a bronze in the TEF or why your staff-to-student ratio is so low. It is through your own communications with prospective, current and even past students, that you can provide the vital contextual information that will bring your institution to life.

It may be your prospectus, your website, your social media feeds, promotional videos, virtual tours, your strategic plan or even your annual report. But if your communications are going to have an impact, they need to focus on the things that are important to your students. And these may not be the things that are important to you.

So you need to find out what is important to your students. Consider the following:

  • What factors did they take into account when making their decision about where to study?
  • Whose advice did they seek?
  • What do they think about their current course?
  • Do they feel that it represents a valuable investment of their time and resources?
  • Would they recommend their course or institution to others?

Various organisations have already undertaken research in this area, including the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Universities UK and, most recently, the Office for Students. But participants in the IT&R project questioned whether students are genuinely able to make an informed assessment of the long-term value of their studies as opposed to just a short-term decision based on a more narrow definition of value.

This is not to say, however, that universities should not seek out and listen carefully to the views of their students and their student union colleagues. Indeed, if institutions want to improve their teaching activities, then there really is no substitute for engaging proactively, positively and effectively with their own student and alumni body.

Which is where IT&R comes in. Because with its focus on thinking holistically about how a university creates value for its students and other stakeholders in the longer term, it represents a way for institutions to change the nature of the conversation. Away from short-term factors like contact hours and the cost of the campus bus service, and towards the longer-term impact of a university education on a student’s personal, social, intellectual and employment prospects.

So, more effective engagement with students might be:

  • Clarity about who you are engaging with, whether this is prospective students, current students, alumni or a mixture of all three
  • Time spent building trust between the university and its students, shown through your actions, as well as in your words, that you have their best interests at heart
  • Use of communications channels that are relevant to them
  • Capture the full range of voices, not just those which shout the loudest
  • Fully engage with your Students’ Union, ask them to contribute to research, to collate student opinion, and to help you capture and review feedback
  • Above all, show your students that you trust and empower student representatives.

The critical thing is to maintain continuity, listen to what your students are telling you, and engage with them before decisions are taken. Because while your students may not speak with one voice, they do all have a voice. And even if you do not listen to what they are saying, others will. Your students are your ambassadors to the world. And their success is your success.

Read: Putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation
Read: Are governors facing information overload?

You can find out more about integrated thinking and reporting at the IT&R conference on Tuesday 11 September. Contact Kim Ansell for more information.
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.

Are governors facing information overload?

Four clear baubles containing who where when how why

Governors must have confidence in the information that they are being given. They also need it to be clear, concise and timely information upon which they can rely. Simon Perks asks how that can be achieved.

The Advance HE project, integrated thinking and reporting (IT&R) can help governors and their institutions to focus on material issues and take a holistic approach to strategic governance. Ten HEIs are participating in a pilot project to examine how universities can better report on how they create value, particularly to critical stakeholders such as governors and students.

The higher education sector and the responsibilities of individual institutions are becoming ever more complex. Institutions are actively seeking approaches to deal with the range of issues and challenges with which governing bodies are required to concern themselves, and scrutiny of what institutions do and how they do it has risen swiftly to the top of the political and media agenda. Consequently, the need for governors to obtain reliable assurance on their institutions’ activities has never before been so great.

Whilst a holistic approach to stakeholder engagement is part of the integrated thinking and reporting concept, the need for governors to engage in the process of short, medium and long term value creation and to be part of the communication process to demonstrate that value is critical. You can read more about putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation here.

The drive for greater and better information, and assurance took centre stage in the recent workshop for the IT&R project and the needs of governors featured strongly.

“Governors need to know what their institution is doing”, explained Simon Taylor, director of financial services at Sheffield Hallam University and a governor of Barnsley College.

“They need to know the risks that it is facing. And they need clear assurance around the management of risk, exposure to fraud and other challenges”.

As the challenges faced by institutions and the assurances required by governors grow, so too do the number and length of reports that governors are expected to read. Participants in the IT&R project agreed, that can make it difficult for governors to stay on top of the information provided to them. Furthermore, reports to governors on specific issues do not always set out the bigger picture. And in their drive to provide full and complete information, such reports may not highlight adequately the issues that are of most concern to the governing body.

We need a more holistic way of thinking about our institutions’ activities and of reporting to governors. And integrated thinking and reporting provides a way of doing just that.

The project draws on the principles and practice of the international Integrated Reporting (IIRC) framework, which is designed to allow organisations across all sectors to communicate more clearly how they create value in the short, medium and long term. An integrated report should be concise yet reliable, complete yet focused on material issues. Ideal, then, for governors.

The benefits to governors of such an approach to reporting are clear. It provides a complete and inclusive insight into the institution and its activities. It focuses on how the institution creates value for its students, staff, funders and society. It considers how well the institution uses the financial and other resources available to it. And it provides information on the institution’s failures as well as its successes. In short, it goes behind the facts and the figures to really tell the institution’s story.

Participants agree though, that an integrated approach to reporting to governors can only work if governors themselves are engaged actively in developing the reporting framework. What issues are most important to them? What information do they want? How frequently do they need it? How would they like to see it presented? What other assurances do they require?

By creating clear, concise and insightful reports that get quickly to the heart of the issues facing institutions, these institutions can help governors to focus on what is important. To see the bigger picture.To gain insight into what the institution is doing and the challenges that it might face. That is what integrated thinking and reporting is all about. And that, surely, is what being a governor is all about, too.

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. Click here to find out more about the IT&R project, or come to our national event on 11 September. Browse our extensive resources for governors and sign up to our governance new alert service.

Putting all stakeholders at the heart of value creation

An illustration of a forum

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.

Visit our website for more information about the Integrated Thinking and Reporting project.

Read: Why Newcastle University is taking part in the project.