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Challenges abound, but so do opportunities – why the MillionPlus voice must be heard

  • 18 June 2019
  • By Bill Rammell

This is a guest blog from Bill Rammell, Vice-Chancellor, University of Bedfordshire and the new Chair-elect at MillionPlus. He is also the author of a HEPI report Protecting the Public Interest in Higher Education. 

It is always an interesting time in higher education. As a sector that impacts all of society, touches the lives of so many individuals and families and creates wider benefits from significant public investment, we are bound to attract attention and scrutiny. Everyone has a stake in our universities, which means the people, parliament and the press will rightly ask questions and demand answers about what we do. We’re accountable to our students, to our employers and community partners, to research funders and to the taxpayer.

Higher education is about developing potential and personal transformation. Modern universities exemplify that aspiration, supporting individuals and communities across the UK to shape and change the world around them. That’s why I’m proud to be taking over as Chair of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, at a time when the role and impact of those modern universities has never been more important. Challenges abound, but I know that MillionPlus members and the wider modern university sector are in a strong position to provide the right solutions and opportunities to ensure the country builds on its successes.

To do this requires investment and understanding from government. The recently published Augar report provides real risks for those interested in educational reform. One of my key priorities over the next two years of my term of office will be in supporting all political parties to understand the consequences of some of these reforms. A rush to make major changes risks damaging and removing opportunities for students at a time when instead we need to be increasing the number of people achieving higher levels of learning.
We certainly need a more flexible, fairer system. MillionPlus and modern universities have long called for a more flexible approach that allows learners to move in and out of study while managing other commitments without damaging their life chances or draining their finances. But to be clear this won’t be achieved if government reduces funding for higher education or tries to micro-manage the courses people can choose after the age of 18 years old.

I want to see a high-quality, well-funded post-18 system that harnesses collaboration between colleges and universities to ensure the best outcomes for all learners throughout their life, providing businesses and our public services with talent, entrepreneurialism and innovation. The Augar review is right to highlight the need to expand higher technical education, but wrong not to highlight that modern universities are already powerhouses of work-related HE that help provide the skills for the 21st century workforce. With the right support we can do more in this area with our college partners.

Leaving the European Union will mean the UK will need to reassert its position in the world, and a successful, innovative higher education sector that attracts the talented and entrepreneurial from all over the globe can only help us do that. It’s therefore vital that we have an immigration system that enables this rather than hinders it. The work MillionPlus has done in influencing for reform of the student visa application process has contributed to an amendment proposed to the current Immigration Bill which, if passed, will offer a much more attractive post-study work option for students which is imperative to remain globally competitive. An obvious goal once this becomes law is for universities to work together to ensure the UK is the number one destination for international students.
We will also need to work hard to ensure that UK universities continue to attract investment in the excellent research and knowledge exchange that they foster. The advantages of the EU’s Horizon programme and Erasmus are obvious, and MillionPlus will continue to push the government to secure the best possible access to the collaborative and mobility opportunities that are the hallmark of these schemes. However, government will also want to be investing directly into the UK’s communities, regions and nations. With nearly two-thirds of the research at modern universities demonstrating world-leading or internationally excellent impact, it is vital that government recognises the crucial role we play as regional anchors, enabling businesses to create jobs and, by so doing, growing local economies.

Politicians of all stripes are currently fond of saying that once the Brexit issue is settled, we can move to tackle ‘X’ problem and ‘Y’ issue to improve social justice while supporting aspiration and ambition. Modern universities have never stopped offering people the opportunity to change their lives and fulfil their potential. Forgive me the cliché, but it is one that remains ever true: it is modern universities that do the heavy lifting on tackling the social mobility crisis in this country. We recruit two-thirds of all students from low participation backgrounds and 80% of mature students. Nearly all our students (96%) went to a state schools, and 66% of students who identify as black study at modern universities. The life chances that society wants to give people are happening at modern universities every day and we must protect and build on these opportunities. The links and partnerships our members forge with neighbouring further education colleges, some of which are now part of university groups, provide routes to success for students who have been told too many times that they can’t move on and up or that they are not good enough.

MillionPlus is a distinctive voice in the higher education debate and at such a momentous time we must not forget our commitment to Britain’s world-leading modern universities, serving our communities throughout every region and nation across the UK, nor their outstanding students and staff. Now more than ever, this voice must be heard.

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