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Universities have lost the country: Here’s how UUK must reform to win it back

  • 14 March 2019
  • By Anthony Seldon

This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Buckingham.

Universities in the UK have lost the country. If not the entire country, the elites at least have given up on us. Sometime, earlier this decade, their perception of us began to change from being what we are, the most vital organs of innovation, economic drive, social cohesion and cultural energy in Britain, into self-serving oligarchies. That may have been true when universities looked after the top five to seven per cent of predominantly white, male and middle-class students; but we now are educating fifty per cent of the country, and have a social and community reach undreamt of fifty years ago.

The painful truth is that we have become unloved by Ministers, Whitehall officials, the commentariat and the media. Barely anybody in No.10, the Treasury or the Department for Education has much time for us. Newspaper editors and leader writers don’t get us, and struggle to name any Vice-Chancellor or the causes we espouse. Our work is regularly portrayed in distorted ways, at times grossly so. Yes, we are partly the authors of our own fall from grace. But the opprobrium has gone too far. Evaluating the worth of different degrees by crude metrics – such as the salaries of leavers – is just one misconception of many about the value and point of a university education.

We let these untruths and misconceptions roll on and on. Taking this battering has always been painful, but it has now become dangerous. For the sake of the higher education sector, and the country at large, the time has come for change. Not that we ourselves are blameless. We should have got our house in order when the problems first started emerging in areas like:

  • value for money;
  • Vice-Chancellor pay;
  • pastoral care and mental health;
  • quality of teaching;
  • grade inflation;
  • handling of the pensions issue;
  • free speech;
  • lack of greater social diversity; and
  • unconditional offers.

It is unedifying and undignified for us to be told what to do by others – whether it is the Government or the Office for Students, rather than being the masters of our own fate. What has happened to the once proud university sector in Britain, widely revered and respected internationally as the purveyors of wisdom, excellence and unalloyed higher education quality?

My biggest surprise and sadness since becoming a VC is how little we talk about education. Had universities been dynamic leaders of teaching and learning within their institutions, we might never have needed the hapless TEF. Once it became inevitable, we should have been all over it. The TEF that has emerged has very little to do with making our universities autonomous and self-improving teaching institutions, with the learning of our undergraduates and postgraduates at the heart of our work.

UUK is not responsible alone for the state we are in. But it has to change now, from being part of the problem to the key driver of the solution. It has many qualities, and excellent staff. Its current Strategic Plan focuses on many of the right areas. But the current model is broken. It is like the United Nations, set up in 1945 to meet the demands of the world at the time but now hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the world of 2019. UUK equally, which can trace its origins back to 1918, and in its current format to 2000, is no longer fit for the purpose of optimising the cause of university education across the country.

UUK needs to become a high-profile, agenda-setting, proactive, ubiquitous and deeply-respected powerhouse. It needs to get fierce, ugly at times, to pounce on mistruths, to set the agenda, and for politicians to be afraid of it. Sadly, politicians only change tack when they are afraid. Fear also precedes respect.

The following steps need to be urgently taken.

  • We need a professional leader, who has been a proven success as a Vice-Chancellor, and is able to give five years to the President’s job, having given up their university. It could be a past President of UUK. The present arrangement of just two years in office gives the incumbent too little time to make an impact on the centres of power. Simultaneously running their own university puts an impossible strain on them, however able they are, and in my own brief time, I have seen highly able Presidents. Some individual Vice-Chancellors speak up for university causes in the media, but too many are afraid to do so, for a variety of reasons, including being attacked over their pay. We need one pivotal, powerful person. A new five-year, full-time President must have skills in advocacy, presentation and the ability to represent and hold together our very diverse sector. They must have the ability to see what unites us all. He or she would work very closely with our dynamic UUK Chief Executive, who would in effect be the Permanent Secretary to the new style President, who would be the public figure on the national stage.
  • UUK is not ‘VCUK’, and needs to change from being the association of Vice-Chancellors and Principals from which it emerged to an association of universities. It should bring together all universities which are not for profit and which meet precise criteria, and define far more clearly than at present what our common ground is. It is pointless complaining, as currently happens, that the Russell Group VCs are semi-detached and self-serving. UUK needs to be so good that all Russell Group VCs want to be active participants. Of course there will be bespoke interests that the 24 Russell Group VCs will want to share together. Equally, there are other subgroups amongst universities that will benefit from meeting and working separately together. But we have far more in common than we have dividing us, and the reconstructed UUK needs to epitomise and channel that common ground.
  • Advocacy: we need to be on the front foot, setting the agenda, rather than reacting to it. To achieve this, we need a small outpost in Westminster, perhaps in Storey’s Gate, 200 yards from the Treasury and Parliament. We need to get right up the backside of Whitehall, Parliament, Fleet Street, broadcasters and leading interest groups. We need to organise regular breakfasts, lunches and dinners where we have a constant stream of 10, 20 or 30 figures from these outside worlds coming in to talk to and listen to us. We should be introducing them to our leading academics who have important things to say and research to share. We need to be better pulling together and sharing the brightest and best of British HE. We need to be on Today, Any Questions and across all media. For too long, we have spoken in an echo chamber and we need to speak much more clearly to the nation at large. The UUK’s campaign, launched in autumn 2018, ‘MadeAtUni’ points the way.
  • Powerhouse HQ: UUK should remain in its premises in Tavistock Square, but it needs a top management consultancy to report urgently on how to relate objectives to structure and explore how best a reformed UUK can operate. Some activities are done very well, such as international and mental health. There’s some good research undertaken, but it needs to be much more urgent, high-powered and better disseminated. Communications need galvanising, pumping out timely releases and pouncing on half-truths. We ourselves need to organise ground-breaking international quality conferences, not leave that space to others. The Board needs rethinking and slimming down and reorientating. Why now? Because of the imminence of the Augar Review, because being on the back foot has gone on too long, and because of Brexit. A self-confident university sector is vital to steer the country through the uncharted waters. A revivified, powerhouse UUK will be a game-changer.
  • Cohesion: a much stronger central voice needs to be heard because, at present, universities are splintering. Some look global while others look vulnerable. We will all lose if some of our most geographically and academically diverse universities go under or are forced into mergers. We need a stronger central voice if we are not to break apart and lose our common cause as universities, of being the most academically aspirational voices in the country. UUK new-style needs to get our house in order on subjects like unconditional offers and VC pay. It needs to provide leadership to the sector as well as for the sector, and to remember that we ourselves are the custodians of the interests of students, not the Office for Students. Of course the university sector is extraordinarily diverse. Too diverse for cohesion say some. But the 140 trade sectors which make up the CBI are far more diverse. Yet that doesn’t prevent the CBI punching hard nationally with its own common cause.

All this will need to be paid for of course. University subscriptions will have to go up. The rich universities will have to pay much more. They need to focus more on the national story. They can afford to pay, and will benefit arguably the most from a much more benign climate.

The unfavourable economic and political climates demand that we adapt. We know that those organisations that survive and prosper through periods of change are not those that are most intelligent, nor strongest, but those that are most able to adapt. Universities need big leaders now with big imaginations to put the needs of the university sector as a whole above parochial interests. We must, at this moment of jeopardy, work together, as never before in our history. It is a fight we must win.

7 comments

  1. These look like good ideas to me. Doubt management consultants would add much but certainly getting on the front foot is definitely needed.

  2. John Hansen says:

    This article in itself demonstrates how universities can be a solid and superbly thought out source of planning, self-examination, clarity, realistic awareness and unity.

    I found it was impossible not to keep reading to the end then examining the five steps.

    Another paper which I honestly hope is adopted and not diluted.

    Sir Anthony is very good at producing this sort of hyper common sense.

  3. Anthony Seldon has pointed the dial in exactly the right direction – at the need for strong collective leadership – & for urgent reform of UUK. But can our VCs act together in the national interest? Let’s hope so for the sake of students, staff & citizens.

  4. albert wright says:

    A much needed, well argued and timely contribution.

    UK Universities must re position themselves in the modern world and regain the respect of society.

    They need to develop and promote a Common Purpose to justify their unique position in the country.

    It will not be easy to balance the needs of stakeholders with the requirements of those who fund HE.

    To become a Beacon of Beneficial Activity they need to lead the debate on What is the Purpose of a Modern University?

  5. John Hansen says:

    I really like the way that piece was worded. I found it faultless.

    Now retired, I am very much a spectator, but Further Education is very much in need of a revamp, & a return to being a keystone in society, politics and the aspirations of everyone in the country.

    They have become processing stations to some extent, and that should be rectified.

  6. Linda Price says:

    Anthony Seldon has most eloquently captured the pressing issues of our sector and how we need to go about addressing them. It is time for us to step-up in the sector and get behind these ideas to reposition higher education in leading innovation, the economy, social cohesion and culture. This needs to extend beyond a narrow and instrumentalist view of the value of higher education.

  7. Phil Harvey says:

    I agree with a lot of this and especially Anthony Seldon’s point about the ‘echo chamber’. For far too long UUK and its predecessors have operated as a club, with members in their own bubble, talking in tongues. A new voice is needed, one that can be heard and understood by many and in places far removed from Tavistock Square.

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