Comprehensive universities – the wrong solution to a systemic problem?

An article on the BBC web site highlighted a recent report by Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, which contends that the university system, with its obsession with hierarchies and rankings, has become a barrier to meritocracy.

Instead of driving social mobility, he says, the university system has become a mirror to existing inequalities and is amplifying social segregation.

Even if more young people from disadvantaged families are going to university, there is still a strong pattern of better-off teenagers getting into the highest ranked universities.

He says this creates a system in which a “good” university is likely to be synonymous with being the most selective, which is the opposite of what the country needs from a higher education system.

As with the debate of grammar schools versus comprehensives, the argument goes that the brightest students should be spread across the system, rather than being clustered in a small number of universities crammed with other similar youngsters.

“The root of these problems is academic selection, which has created a sector based on social class advantages,” he says.

I am not sure the problem is academic selection.

We know from parental behaviour that they assess schools and Universities based on academic performance and selection criteria (higher tariffs are seen as proxies for price and value – if the entry barrier is high, it is seen to be a “good” University)

There has also been a relentless increase in pupils achieving A* grades, presumably because they want to be able to get on the course they want, at a university they perceive to have a good reputation – so selection works both ways.

Although we know that poorer young people are still less likely to go to university than their better-off classmates, higher fees have not deterred students from applying to University and Students from all backgrounds are more likely to go to university than ever before – including the poorest, with numbers rising through the years of fee increases.

So the “barrier to meritocracy” seems to be a very nuanced one of opportunity and standards at school level, support given at home and the economic environment and attitudes to education, not simply academic selection at a University level.

Focusing on academic selection is the wrong target – or maybe we should just do away with selection criteria and simply have University catchment areas as we have done in the school system?


spqr_502I had just finished reading Mary Beard’s excellent history of Rome – SPQR – when I went to a workshop recently about making presentations.

There was a certain amount of synchronicity, therefore, when we were given an acronym to remember for structuring a presentation where you want support for a proposal, which was SPQR!

Making such a presentation starts with a story, a situation, which you want your audience to understand and support your conclusions.

SPQR helps structure that story as follows:

S – Situation. What is the back ground leading up to the presentation, Where are we and why?

P – Problem. What is the problem we need to address? What are the wider issues around the problem?

Q – Question. What is the proposal you want to make? Use “what if…?” Get the audience to think about solutions.

R – Response. What do you need from the audience? How will it help the situation?

Stories are a powerful way of getting your message across, so it’s important to get the balance right between information and narrative.

And, like all good stories, there needs to be a beginning, middle and an end with a narrative flow to take people with you.

In ancient Rome, SPQR stood for Senatus Populusque Romanus, which translates to “The Senate and People of Rome”.

Some of the best orators ever known appeared in the Roman senate, and its fun to think of their motto being applied in this modern context.

Marketing, PR and internal communications – specialist disciplines or not?

There has been much discussion of late about the different roles of marketing, PR and internal communications. Some people regard them as separate disciplines with different audiences and objectives – reputation management, brand-building, employee relations, and so on.

With that debate comes the usual problems of organisational boundaries and politics as to who owns what function (and budgets!)

I think we need to go back to first principles and start with the brand.

The brand is vitally important in every organisation – consumer, B2B, not-for-profit, charity, public sector, academic – but it is often ill-defined and its power misunderstood.

For my part, I see internal communications, PR, reputation, and marketing all as a sub-set of the brand strategy.

If by “brand” we mean a promise kept, then your employees are clearly brand ambassadors who need to deliver the values of the organisation. This needs effective internal communications about who you are, what you stand for, and how you want customers to perceive the organisation. Internal communications is an integrated part of the whole – effective delivery of the brand.

Of course, the cultivation of brand ambassadors is not the sole responsibility of any one function. Organisations should be developing effective leaders who are fully conversant with the purpose, vision and values of the organisation, and whose behaviours exemplify those values.

All employees need to live the brand.

Employees aren’t a homogenous mass, nor are they different in attitude and motivation from any other audience.

An effective communications strategy – internal and external – starts with the brand vision, values and proposition and tailors messages to all audiences accordingly.