Joel Arber: championing change at the University of Central Lancashire

As pro vice chancellor for external relations at the University of Central Lancashire, Joel Arber works with local stakeholders to improve regional prosperity. He tells Efficiency Exchange that universities are drivers of economic growth and must focus on that role, rather than dwelling on things out of their control.

As a communications expert, how do you think universities have succeeded in communicating the value they offer?

I think this has been an incredibly difficult period for universities over the past eighteen months or so. As a sector, we didn’t connect with the public on the Brexit issue and have been lambasted as ‘remoaners’ ever since; we’re struggling still to demonstrate the value of fact in the so-called ‘post-truth’ world; and the ill-advised attempts made by several vice-chancellors to defend their pay has been tone deaf in an environment of rising fees and high interest rates on loan repayments for graduates.

The government’s emerging Industrial Strategy provides us with an excellent opportunity to shift the narrative. Both in terms of lobbying and in our communications with the public, we have a great story to tell about our contribution to R&D, skills development and our role as drivers of economic growth in our localities.

It’s a time for us to stop being defensive and negative about situations beyond our control and to focus instead on the integral role we can play, working with industry, in providing solutions.

You have been acting as a University of Central Lancashire change champion. What does that involve?

Change has been a constant in the sector ever since the Browne Review triggered the quasi-marketisation of higher education. At UCLan, we recognised fairly early on that a successful future required significant change in our focus, so in 2012 we created a major programme of change, led by the chief operating officer Michael Ahern, that we called Student First.

This programme drew together the people across the university with a reputation for getting things done, and included a range of academics and professional services staff operating at all levels, supported by a dedicated team of project managers and external support from PA Consulting. This network of change champions was used to spearhead major process changes across the institution and to engage colleagues to buy into the changes.

My involvement focused on a recognition that effective communications are at the heart of successful change – in addition to leading strands of activity related to student recruitment and communications, culminating in a major project to centralise all the marketing and communications functions from across the university into a single service. The programme has now drawn to a close but the change champions are still engaged when projects need our input, and the enthusiasm is infectious.

You have been working with external regional and local stakeholders looking at how the university can help improve the prosperity of the region. What are the outcomes of this work?

Working with external stakeholders has helped the university to make its ambitions in key activities a reality. Like many universities, we’ve worked closely with our Local Enterprise Partnership to match economic needs to our expertise. Our new Engineering Innovation Centre is an excellent example of us developing capacity in both teaching and research in a discipline critical to Lancashire’s aerospace and advanced manufacturing sectors, which the LEP has enabled through Growth Deal funding.

Another key area of work where we have enjoyed success in our external relationships is in healthcare. We’ve successfully lobbied local and national stakeholders to receive an allocation of UK undergraduate student numbers for our fast-growing School of Medicine, and we are working closely with an NHS Trust partner to build a medical education sector and primary care clinic where our students will experience hands-on learning working alongside our health practitioners.

What are your biggest challenges at the University of Central Lancashire?

Personally, I think the concept of the ‘squeezed middle’, which has been talked about for some years now, is a more pertinent threat than ever. The industrial strategy green paper published earlier this year has a clear focus on research and innovation with a heavy nod towards the research intensive institutions, and emphasises the role of technical education and skills from the further education sector.

Our challenge is to demonstrate that we have a huge amount to offer across this spectrum. We’re a member of the University Alliance, and between us we represent a fifth of the world class in disciplines critical to the economy such as general engineering, art and design, and allied health, whilst over 40% of our programmes are vocational and accredited by professional bodies.

As one of England’s largest universities, and with a very strong balance sheet, we are insulated to an extent – but only as long as we are pragmatic and sufficiently fleet-of-foot to remain relevant.

Having worked in other sectors, what could universities learn about transformational change?

Decisiveness and speed of implementation are top of the list for me. The sector still needs work on making well-informed business decisions in a timely way and then following them through with compliant delivery. There’s a job to be done in leadership development specifically around creating a culture of teamwork – one that brings people along rather than simply imposing from the top. And we do collectively love to dither!

Do you think universities are still suffering from perceptions that they are awash with cash?

Sadly, I do. And the nonsense that too many in the sector have engaged in with the media over the summer months has only fanned the flames. We seem to be in a position where some politicians and journalists actually want to see institutions fail in order to teach the sector a lesson. If only we’d been more effective in communicating our value…

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I watch as much cricket, rugby and baseball as I can get away with – which is never enough given the demands of my six year old son Hudson, and Georgia, my eight year old daughter. But the real antidote to the day job is singing and playing guitar in a rock and roll band. I love the buzz of performing and it’s great to make some noise to let off steam!