In 2019, I would like to see Higher Education learning more from other sectors

Vanessa Todman, Senior Behavioural Insights Adviser |

Last week, our Associate Director Susannah launched a series of blogs celebrating the anniversary of the set-up of What Works in King’s College London with a reflection on  the value of What Works in widening participation on WonkHE.

This month also marks the first anniversary of my move into Higher Education (HE).  Reflecting on both these landmarks, one of the things that has surprised me most about this sector, in comparison to other sectors I’ve worked in, is a comparable lack of cross-sector working and recruitment. HE is a unique sector, but not so unique that it can’t learn from what’s been tried and tested elsewhere – something I think What Works is demonstrating.

Higher Education can learn from the experience of other sectors

Things are changing for the HE sector, as evidenced by the Office for Students’ interest in value for money[i], and the establishment of the Evidence and Impact Exchange[ii]. HE moved from a funding-based to a market-based regulatory regime a while ago now; something a lot of other sectors have been in for years, and with that change comes a new power for consumers and increased scrutiny through regulation. Something that the sector seems to still be coming to terms with.

In 2016, the Behavioural Insights Team published a review of how to apply behavioural insights to regulated markets[iii], which contains some interesting pointers to think about in HE. In fact, the findings of regulators from other markets could help us with a host of problems, including encouraging students to apply for bursaries,[iv] how to prompt engagement with finances using text messages[v], and how to get students to open our letters[vi]. If you think it’s difficult to get students to engage with their module choices, talk to the Financial Conduct Authority, who are trying to get people engaged with the annuities market!

It is still essential that we don’t just passport learning across. We need to empirically test that knowledge gained from elsewhere works within our sector.

Equality of access is a key opportunity for cross-sector learning

There are many things that I believe HE can learn from other sectors, and improved equality and diversity is a big one. Equality and diversity of access, of voice, staffing, of options in the canteen: there’s room for improvement pretty much everywhere.

Equality of access is important, not just for the benefit it has to society, but also for a healthy market. In their blog on whether the market for higher education was working, the National Audit Office listed seven key reasons that markets fail that are relevant to higher education[vii]. Some are structural issues, but not all of them: for instance, inequity in access to higher education is an issue that needs to be actively tackled, as the current set up, left to its own devices, can exacerbate inequality and hinder social mobility[viii].

Ensuring equality of access is something that many other sectors have legally been obliged to do for quite some time; I used to help them. It was hard work to understand the needs and access requirements of everyone (especially in the health sector) and it required a lot of focus groups, but it was also very rewarding:  people want to be heard. What has worked in other sectors can help us think about what we can do differently. There is great work from television[ix] to health services[x], that won’t be completely applicable, but will have useful insight. For example, the police have had some interesting results testing how to increase BAME recruitment[xi].

Hiring a cross-sectoral team is an effective way of building a team with a diverse range of experience

I can understand why there is a feeling that HE is such a specialist sector that someone coming in fresh will struggle. It was an embarrassingly long time before I knew what a Dean was, my previous knowledge only being based on Terry Pratchett novels and the TV show Community. Learning new rules and vocabularies is part of changing jobs, and it can take longer if you’re also changing sectors.

It can also be more difficult to convincingly translate your experience in an interview context when looking to move across sectors. The experience of people from other sectors can be far less tangible and hard for them to apply convincingly without knowing the sector they are moving in to in detail. However, it’s something hiring managers should be looking out for. People who have cross-sectoral experience can bring valuable insight to HE teams and can encourage issues to be looked at from multiple angles and reduces the risk that something will be done because “that’s how we’ve always done it” and not because it works.

I am confident that my experience elsewhere has helped the team, not just in applying behavioural insights to HE, but also project management and performance management techniques. My time at Ofgem working to understand how to get consumers to engage with switching adverts certainly is obviously relevant in a sector where we struggle to get students to engage with our communications. My time working as an auditor, and a contract manager, gave me experience of building stakeholder relationships, often with conflicting priorities, and gave me insight into building rapport and persuasion techniques, to get what we need from stakeholders who have many calls on their time.

Realising the benefits of cross-sectoral teams

Hiring people in who have been tackling similar issues in other environments won’t be without its challenges, both for the sector and for those people; the pressure to assimilate can be strong and the complexity of the challenges HE faces can be very daunting to a newcomer to the sector.

However, experience across different sectors gives people problem-solving skills, perspective, and resilience: the latter is a trait I’ve particularly come to value as a team manager.

From the start, What Works has been a cross-sector team. Together we have HE experience, but also experience of consulting, social research, school education and even nursing. This has meant that at times we have had different approaches and expectations of ways of working, for example approaches to collaborative working. What Works has seen the value of pairing staff who are experienced at work but not in HE with those who maybe know a lot about HE but haven’t had experience of working anywhere else.  This creates far greater opportunities for staff to learn from each other and innovate than if they are coming from the same background.

Don’t discount the value of cross-sector experience: when a CV from someone who doesn’t have HE experience crosses your desk, I’d encourage you to stop and think about what the experience they have can add to your team.

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[i] OFS (2018) Value for money: The student perspective. Available at :


[iii] Costa, E. King, K, Dutta, R and Algate, F. (2016) Applying behavioural insights to regulated markets

[iv] Hunt,S. Adam, P (2013) Encouraging consumers to claim redress: evidence from a field trial. Available at:

[v] Financial Conduct Authority (2015) Message Received? The impact of annual summaries, text alerts and mobile apps on consumer banking behaviour Available at:


[viii] CESifo DICE Report 2/2013 (Summer): Access to Higher Education”, Ifo Institute, Munich, 2013, 01–61 Available at:



[xi] Linos, E., Reinhard, J., & Ruda, S. (2017). Levelling the playing field in police recruitment: Evidence from a field experiment on test performance. Public Administration, 95(4), Pp. 943-956.

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