“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
Another year, another glittering Times Higher Awards ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel; and that was not just a reference to the host, Julian Clary. On this occasion the awards encompassed leadership, management and academic categories in one overarching event, previously two separate ceremonies. Judging from the reaction of those present this was a successful innovation even if the significantly increased numbers meant a tighter squeeze than usual. For one thing, there was a record 500 entries from around 180 institutions, departments or research institutes and 80 entrants were shortlisted for the 23 awards. For another, the new format is a better reflection of the entirety of a university community because it removes the implied distinction between “academic” and “management”. Indeed, some new categories generated particularly strong interest such as the outstanding Technician of the Year, recognising the crucial support that technicians provide for a range of activities across a university.
There was a further innovation this year, an opportunity to study synopses of the shortlisted submissions ahead of the awards themselves and, moreover, a chance for the nominees to showcase their work at the LIVE event the previous day. This puts the awards on a different footing because people can assess the submissions themselves before, in due course, discovering who the judges selected as winners. Arguably this places greater onus on the judges to get it right!
Some may ask what is the point of awards of this kind? Institutional managers are very quick to keep publicising their success even if their award was a few years ago! Not every university submits, and it is striking that some universities appear on the shortlists nearly every year, often appearing in several categories, evidence of effective internal organisation. It is clearly easier for large universities to resource submissions, much more difficult for smaller or specialist institutions. Yet judging by the number of the latter, which do engage with the awards, it is clear they see this as a good opportunity to draw attention to their otherwise unheralded work.
At the same time, submissions are just the tip of the iceberg and for every shortlisted entrant there are many also-rans not to mention activities which are never submitted for the awards in the first place, all of which can be making a significant contribution to their institution and its community. Some proposals come up short, simply because they have not been adequately described or quantified. In other cases, the timescale is misleading. Evidently some activities need a period of development to demonstrate success, but the task for judges is to determine what is a reasonable timescale; twelve months may be too short, but ten years far too long! Advice and guidance is clearly needed and, building on the Live broadcast, successful submissions could continue to be made available as examples of good practice.
The awards are clearly evolving, but are there new areas which need recognition? An obvious one is excellence in delivering apprenticeship programmes within HE, a category already highly valued in the annual FE Awards. And in the light of recent concerns should there not be an award for the most successful strategy in addressing issues of equality and diversity? In this respect, it was encouraging that Professor Dame Athene Donald was awarded the Lifetime Achievement this year for promoting gender equality. There is surely a case for an annual institutional or individual award.
One may ask, what’s in it for the sponsors, commercial and public enterprises and organisations, without whom the awards would not take place at all? Quite apart from exposure to a large audience, both at the event itself and its publicity before and after, there is the satisfaction of being able to reward a category of particular relevance or importance to the sponsors. In some cases, it’s self evident – a bank sponsoring financial excellence, a telecommunications company supporting work in IT. In the case of Anderson Quigley, while our primary work is in recruitment, we all agree that the student experience is central to the health of an institution, hence our continued sponsorship of that particular category.
Finally, to what extent does the success of an institution in any particular category filter down to the rest of the institution? Gaining recognition for leadership or for effective financial management, not to mention becoming University of the year, are all excellent achievements. The challenge is to sustain and even enhance these high standards otherwise awards become evanescent.
In the final analysis Lewis Carroll’s famous quote may not exactly reflect the reality of competitions but the essence of it has to be correct, simply making a submission is a victory in its own right.
by Deian Hopkin