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Annual conference: university sector has much to discuss

Tomorrow and Wednesday, Nottingham Trent University hosts Universities UK’s  2016 annual conference: an occasion when we put to one side our areas of competition – for students, staff, research grants, project investment and league table positions – and consider issues that affect us all, such as international relations and the implications of Brexit.

Ironically, the conference takes place at the time of the year where our competition for students is at its most intense: confirmation and clearing. Admittedly, the heat has subsided since its peak in mid-August, when for a couple of days many universities ran what I suspect were some of the busiest call centres in the country.

 At Nottingham Trent University (NTU), our offer strategy in clearing was, as usual, shaped partly by our understanding of the approach of what we call our UCAS Competitor Group (you know who you are!) and, for some of our disciplines, a much wider penumbra of higher education institutions.

Furthermore, the most intense competition for students and, to some extent, for staff takes place against those very universities with which we also work closest. 

NTU has what could be termed three concentric circles of collaboration: an outer circle comprising the 135 members of UUK; a middle circle made up of 19 members of the University Alliance; and the inner circle of seven institutions which have just formed Midlands Enterprise Universities. Most of the latter are in our core competitor group.

The NTU pattern of affiliation by no means represents all of the combinations in the sector. There is at least one university I know that belongs to a fourth partnership group in the UK. Some are members of international alliances. I doubt there are many universities attending the UUK conference that are not members of at least one other club.

To the outsider, all these collaborations might make the sector look rather cosy, but really they signal quite the opposite.

 They speak to an ever more competitive higher education scene where the interests of individual institutions are best assured by a network of effective partnerships with those possessing similar opportunities and constraints. These will differ depending on the issue under consideration. The rules of the various games in which we are involved are shaped by the overlapping interventions of these three groups and many others; however, once they have been agreed, the competition between us is intense whichever field we are playing on.

Being in three formal affiliations is time-consuming. It is crucial for NTU to be clear about the purpose of each. Midlands Enterprise Universities has been formed to coordinate the contributions of its seven members to the Midlands Engine agenda around skills, enterprise, and innovation. The University Alliance ensures that the voice of the new wave of civic universities is reflected in higher education policy across research, teaching and knowledge transfer.

Which brings me back to Universities UK, and the programme for our 2016 conference. In my view, its unique role is to represent universities in those areas where all our interests align, such as immigration policy or the UK’s future research relationship with the EU. The conference is an annual invitation to raise our collective eyes to the horizon, stimulated by a range of speakers that only an organisation with the profile and reputation of UUK could secure. Crucially, I will hear the perspectives of university leaders, and a range of those who head up sector bodies, with whom I would otherwise have little contact.

For NTU, the conference is one important component of how we ensure our organisational ability to both collaborate and compete on the domestic and international stage. I look forward to welcoming many of you to Nottingham and to renewing our affiliation.

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