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Universities in the cross-fire: taking back control and navigating the storm ahead

  • 8 May 2019
Photo credit: Torsten Dederichs

Lucian J. Hudson writes in a personal capacity. He is Interim Director of Public Affairs and Communications at Oxford University, and a past Director of Communications at The Open University and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office

At the HEPI Annual Policy Briefing Day, the starkest of conclusions was reached by Dr. Gavan Conlon, Partner, London Economics, “There is no good news. Current economic fundamentals are desperate. Any student support regime is going to be expensive…The ONS Review makes hard decisions unavoidable…The Augar Review has limited manoeuvre. The direct effects of Brexit on Universities are either ambiguous or downright bad – but the indirect effects are even worse: economic growth will suffer for a decade at least – causing the most vicious of vicious circles.”

The challenge is to turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one. Leadership in framing or reframing policy choices could make a significant difference if we take the severe warnings as a spur to necessary action on income generation, investing in our students and staff, improving our governance and developing a leadership and management who value academic excellence.

If as a sector we are open, forward-thinking, vocal and seek broad-based support in taking on the challenges that face us, we will survive and thrive. If not, we will risk marginalisation and fragmentation. We need educational institutions that are preeminent in research and innovation, value excellence in teaching and learning, set standards as employers and provide opportunities for students to succeed whatever their background. The very complexity of the sector can be a source of strength, but only if we appreciate that in some cases we will have a common yet differentiated position. Oxford University and The Open University – we need both.

According to HEPI research, even discounting the effects of Brexit, post-18 education will require by 2030 an additional 300 000 students. Therein lies the answer – a sector that could continue to succeed if it sees itself as part of post-18 education, including on part-time and adult learning. We need to resist funding reductions to the HE sector unless implications have been worked through and plans are in place to manage change. The Augar Review, ONS Review and Comprehensive Spending Review need to be considered in the round. Ministers and party manifestos need to avoid what the Germans call a schlimmbesserung – improvements that make things worse.

If a crisis is defined as a set of circumstances which is worsening unless timely action is taken, then Higher Education in England is not in acute crisis but could be in chronic crisis – because of a combination of factors largely but not exclusively focused on financial sustainability.

This puts a particular requirement on UK Government and opposition parties not to destabilise the sector when they have not worked through how to build on its success whilst making changes and maintaining confidence in its long-term future. A thriving and changing sector is everybody’s responsibility, but the sector needs to define its own agenda, informed but not dictated by others.

The UK is already in a precarious position because of the protracted debate over Brexit. Too much political and media focus is on Brexit at the expense of a wider social agenda that also needs active attention. In this climate, provided we are realistic about how the media works, specialist correspondents in education, science, culture, business and technology are allies in raising awareness and deepening understanding of the transformative power of teaching, learning, research and innovation. We need to be more assertive about what does work well in HE and demonstrate that, and call out the impact our students and academics make. Equally, we need to acknowledge challenges and show that we are taking timely action.

I am a conditional optimist about the sector’s future, not for every HE institution but for most. The optimism turns on bringing out the difference a well-funded HE sector can make in leading the world as a knowledge-rich economy, capable of rising to the challenge of sustainable development, AI and evolving technology, one where human intelligence, collaboration and problem solving are at a premium. Our biggest contribution is preparing our students to cope with a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, whether their motivation is curiosity and passion for an academic discipline or pursuing a vocation, or both.

The future is worth fighting for, but only if we focus on what is distinctive and special about what the sector stands for, not least its independence, academic freedom and social purpose. We need to use our convening power as anchors of our community, and work in partnership with others, demonstrating our value not just to governments and regulators but students, stakeholders and our own staff, particularly our academics.

Universities have proved more durable than many or most institutions, not because the conditions in which they operate have always been easy but because of the continued need for them and their ability to combine continuity and change.

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