11th October 2016

What the hell is excellence?

I recently contributed to a HEPI pamphlet on TEF http://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-conte..., and within this made a particular point about how universities might create their own markers and metrics to highlight their distinctiveness – whether for the written submission or just to develop their identity. I wanted to elaborate on this point a bit more, so I’ve done this by asking ‘what the hell is excellence’?

Excellence is something that I had previously glossed over – not that I wasn’t interested in doing things well – but because I had never taken a moment to think about what it really is. You may have done so, and have a clear idea of what excellence means in your particular context. However, I had, perhaps through overuse of the phrase ‘that’s excellent’, ceased to give it much thought.

Recently I spent a couple of days at a conference with University leaders from across Europe, and all that was discussed was excellence. The resounding conclusion was that excellence is in the journey, not the destination. Excellence is a mindset and a cultural imprint.

This led me to think about employability, which is the usual topic of discussion when Gradcore work with universities. In particular I reflected that we so often talk in absolutes about employability, and the measures we use to describe whether a university is succeeding in this area are fixed points with little appreciation of context. In other words, they are destinations rather than journeys. This is in focus at the moment as the HE Bill cites salaries, the most crude and basic employability metric, as part of the equation.

This notion of ‘excellence being in the striving’ applies in plenty of other contexts as well. I was fortunate enough to hear Michael Bloomberg and Richard Gnodde, CEP from Goldman Sachs, speak at an event. They were asked a question from the floor about what do you do when you reach your vision? They both clearly stated that vision was always renewed, and new ones often embarked upon before old ones die away. In other words, progress was made via an ongoing journey rather than hitting a fixed point.

The slightly glass half empty way of looking at all of this is to say that what excellence, employability and vision have in common is that you never get there. This has some resonance with the Schopenhauer idea that life is a series of pursuits that when reached leave us unfulfilled and we have to move on to the next one, without ever reaching any kind of contentment or happiness (with apologies to proper philosophers, if I am grossly simplifying this).

It seems to me that this perspective negates the value and joy of the journey – as the Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said in an interview, ‘it is not necessarily about the trophies and cups, you’ll often forget who won what and when, but it is about the experience – being able to say you were there’.

So what might this mean for how individuals and universities consider employability? From an individual perspective it reminds us of the difference between employability and employment – the fact that employment is just one fixed moment, and employability is about delivering successfully on an ongoing basis in different contexts.

From a university view perhaps we should be evaluating university employability performance (and excellence?) on their striving to achieve, and the journey they are taking their students on, the value they are adding.

One version of this could involve asking universities to set their own markers and metrics on employment and employability (with some parameters for national consistency) then publicly declare these goals, ideally in line with their institutional vision and mission. This could be done every 3-5 years, and displayed in context with peer university averages, and current performance (perhaps their TEF gold, silver or bronze).

By committing to this approach, potential students (and their parents) will be able to evaluate and interpret the numbers more usefully. It could help us get away from ‘side of a bus syndrome’ where the 90 odd percent employment indictor is plastered on public transport, playing on consumer ignorance of what that number really means.

This contextualised view of employability might even challenge universities to develop some genuine points of difference and distinctiveness – in the face of the bland mission statements exposed by the recent Gallup research. http://www.gallup.com/business...

In short, excellence lies in the individuals and universities who are striving for great things relative to their context, situation and background.

In a world where salaries are the measure of graduate success, potentially driving some perverse incentives for universities to send their grads to ‘Alpha cities’ to earn more money, we need to think of other ways of judging university employability performance. These models should be contextual, and if well designed could encourage universities to be more honest about their context, cohort and community. There are hints of this in the revised TEF design, which is encouraging.

Universities are absolutely not all the same, but so often blur into one, and seeing excellence in this way might allow us to tell them apart a bit better.

Martin Edmondson