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Universities at the Crossroads

  • 24 February 2020
  • By Lucian J Hudson

This blog was contributed by Lucian J. Hudson, former Director of Communications at The Open University, University of Oxford and Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

Lucian has co-authored a new paper with Iain Mansfield, which Policy Exchange has published this morning. This paper is based on more than 50 interviews with chairs of governing bodies, vice-chancellors and leaders across the UK higher education sector, as well as key stakeholders, opinion-formers, staff and students. These interviews were carried out between November 2019 and January 2020.

The UK higher education sector has much to be proud of, but it is at a cross-roads in terms of its future direction. The sector is not in crisis, but it could be if action is not taken. It needs to address three gaps or deficits: democratic, financial and delivery.

In our paper for Policy Exchange, Universities at the Crossroads: How higher education leadership must act to regain the trust of their staff, their communities and the whole nation, Iain Mansfield and I argue that higher education has found itself largely by default in a vulnerable or potentially vulnerable position with UK Government, other stakeholders and the wider public. The sector has allowed itself all too often to be positioned negatively in public debate and in the media. It risks being seen as protecting and perpetuating the interests of an educated metropolitan elite, when in fact the sector is much more diverse and at its best reflects the whole of the nation and the wider interests of the local communities that it serves. But the value that the sector offers is not cutting through.

We have interrogated public attitude surveys including the BritainThinks survey for Universities UK in November 2018 with a range of senior contacts across UK higher education and external stakeholders, including those most closely involved in shaping policy for the new UK Government. Our paper pinpoints a perception of a growing demographic and attitudinal divide that universities need to pay closer attention to. As Ben Page, Chief Executive, Ipsos MORI argues, ‘This is important if universities are to have credibility in their role in bringing different perspectives and backgrounds together – and address the changing political, cultural and social landscape of the UK.’ The overwhelming view of contributors to our paper is that this can, and should, be put right as a matter priority.

The sector in England needs to discuss with the new UK Government what can be delivered by the system with the available money. It cannot keep delivering more when the purse strings are continually being tightened. However, according to some chairs and vice-chancellors interviewed for our paper, the sector needs to stop complaining about lack of money and have a sensible debate about what is expected of the sector within the financial constraints. The funding received by universities for educating each undergraduate (the unit of resource) has fallen in real terms since 2015. The Augar review proposed freezing the current average per student resource until 2022/23. This would mean an 11 per cent drop in real terms from 2018/19. The freezing of the unit of resource already represents a significant continued reduction in real terms.

The future of the sector should be bright, but it does not feel that way to many of our respondents. Both Conservative and Labour election manifestos were fairly critical of the sector. The Onward survey published last August reported that 66 per cent of respondents had said that more people going to university and fewer gaining technical qualifications has been bad for the country overall, compared to 34 per cent who think that it has been beneficial.

The sector is in a mixed financial state and this assessment will not change soon. Much of the sector is surviving, some of it even thriving, but between 20 and 30 per cent of higher education institutions across the UK have financial challenges and are at risk of not being sustainable.

This has been happening at the same time as there has been a public perception of a decline in quality. Most notable are grade inflation (50 per cent ‘good degrees’ in 2000 to 80 per cent today) and unconditional offers. The graduate premium – how much more graduates are likely to earn on average compared to their peers who do not hold a degree – has started to decline and there are a stubbornly high number of graduates in non-graduate jobs. If the higher education sector is to protect and make even better use of existing funding, it should engage in a more meaningful dialogue with government and other parts of the education sector, particularly further education. The sector needs to address concerns about low quality of degrees and demonstrate that it is delivering the skills required to achieve economic and social outcomes, valued by government and other key stakeholders such as business and the NHS. It must continue to accelerate widening access without compromising high academic standards. It also needs to address the widely criticised recent trends in grade inflation, unconditional offers and vice-chancellors’ pay.

The sector this year has an opportunity to work even more closely with the new UK Government in delivering on its policy priorities, especially to play its full part in “levelling up” the UK and in addressing the sector’s funding constraints. More constructive engagement will provoke a pertinent question: how does higher education leadership, especially in England, balance having one single sector with individual institutions being commercially independent and competitive?

This presents significant challenges for leaders, individually and collectively. We challenge assumptions that the sector is homogeneous and bring out many positive examples of how the sector and its institutions are excellent in different ways, including demonstrating civic leadership and addressing not just skills gaps but knowledge gaps in the economy. As Chris Sayers, Chair, Committee of University Chairs, says, ‘Following the General Election, Brexit and now the Government reshuffle, this fires a timely shot across the bow, warning us that the leadership of the sector needs to step up to close the gap in perception between how the sector sees itself and how others see us.’

If the sector can achieve a comprehensive settlement on pay, pensions and working conditions, it might be able to address the underlying concerns of an increasingly discontented workforce and put the sector on a more financially sustainable footing. Just as union representatives need to recognise what for the sector would be affordable, management representatives have to acknowledge more fully that concerns over casualisation and short-term contracts are genuine. The sector needs to face up to the fact that for too long it has put up with too high a level of casualisation and insecurity.

The external and internal challenges are two sides of the same coin. This should encourage higher education leaders to continue to work together as a sector to address academic and teaching quality, student wellbeing and tackle bullying and harassment. These are certainly all critical in building and rebuilding trust.

1 comment

  1. Robyn Evans says:

    Well said. The sector has been disrupted, not by MOOCs, as forecast, decisions made now will determine what the future of the sector is. The role of universities in reproducing a social and economic elite, and whether that’s desirable, needs frank discussion in policy forums.

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