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Making universities matter: two reports call for radical change

  • 2 March 2020
  • By Lucian J Hudson

Lucian J. Hudson is the lead author of Universities at the Crossroads (Policy Exchange, 2020). He is a former Director of Communications at the University of Oxford and The Open University.

Spring green shoots have come early to the UK higher education sector with the publication of two new reports, one published by HEPI and authored by Natalie Day, Chris Husbands and Bob Kerslake and the other hailing from Policy Exchange.

Each offers a radical perspective of how the sector can succeed under a newly-elected UK Government. There was no conferring, collaboration or collusion between the authors of the two reports. They bring to the surface what many in the sector are saying and feeling. This is all the more reason why both reports taken together should be required reading for the sector, policy makers and all with a stake in the future of higher education.

A time for fundamental change

In the words of one senior contributor to the Policy Exchange report, Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter: ‘It cannot now be business-as-usual for the sector.’ Although there are some important differences between the reports, both reflect similar concerns and aspirations and both appear to call for fundamental change.

Shared agenda

Both reports argue that following the 2019 General Election and Brexit, the sector cannot be a passive observer of the challenges facing the UK, particularly the challenge of a divided nation. The authors of both agree that the sector needs to:

  1. Put behind its differences on Brexit and positively engage with UK Government. The Policy Exchange report recommends that the sector should use this transition year to focus on opportunities that it needs to secure for UK higher education, especially in relation to research and science; and it should open a dialogue with UK Government and further education to address one of the key findings of the Augar Review on using funding to meet academic and vocational needs.
  2. Return to the front-foot, shifting from a narrow and defensive position, to a bold and confident one. Our colleagues at Sheffield Hallam say that their hope is that higher education can move quickly to form a more positive and proactive alliance where Government and the sector work together to ensure that the post-18 education system delivers for all students, all regions and the country more broadly. The Policy Exchange report speaks of the need to reconnect with the whole nation, economically, socially and culturally in order to rebuild trust.
  3. Respond to the Government’s commitment to “level up” the UK economy. Our Sheffield Hallam colleagues aptly argue that this would make a difference to the way universities think about their roles and the way the Government manages its relationships with the sector. Their emphasis on place is well argued. The two reports are aligned on tackling regional imbalances and driving research funding to lagging regions. The Policy Exchange report argues that we also need to continue to fund research excellence – the two must go together.

Universities as catalysts for change

The Sheffield Hallam team make a very strong point that a university’s geographic role needs to be used more effectively as an agent of change, both within the core cities where the majority of higher education institutions are based, as well as the surrounding areas that may have been left behind in today’s post-industrial knowledge-based economy. I have learnt that when Vice-Chancellors of Russell Group universities were briefed last month on the thinking behind the Conservative Party manifesto, they were told that the focus should be on levelling up, not only on cities but towns too.

The Policy Exchange report argues that the sector needs to help to close not just gaps in skills, but gaps in knowledge. We need to encourage higher education institutions even more to be engines for local and regional development, including when bidding for and distributing research funding and to work with employers to close skills and knowledge gaps, enhancing productivity and prosperity through closer engagement with local and regional business and civic bodies. This may include more blended learning options, more use of technology to deliver timely and relevant education and a move away from three-year full-time bachelor’s degrees to a greater mix of part-time, shorter and more vocational courses.

The Policy Exchange is explicit about the need for extra resources to reverse the decline in part-time education and increase the provision of adult learning, especially in local communities. The Policy Exchange report recommends a wider scope: the sector can build on the success provided by the University of Salford and the University of Liverpool in demonstrating that universities have a linchpin role in an ecosystem, not just tackling skills gaps with employers but knowledge gaps too. University of Salford has knowledge exchange partnerships that have changed the fortunes of small and medium-sized enterprises by adding innovative value. Researchers at the University of Liverpool are working on collaborative research and development challenges to help Unilever become cutting edge and raise standards of products and services through the supply chain.

The Sheffield Hallam team focus on the use of civic university agreements as evidence that the sector demonstrates civic leadership. The Policy Exchange report cites many examples of universities which have civic university agreements, from Sheffield Hallam to Newcastle University, the University of Lincoln and the University of the West of England. The University of Manchester, although not yet with such an agreement, is perceived as an exemplar of effective civic leadership. What I think makes the most significant difference is less the agreement itself but the extent to which a higher education institution can demonstrate in its strategy appreciation of, and support for, others’ interests. These examples already send a strong signal that many of our institutions can put wider interests before their own, or show that their interests and the interests of their communities can be aligned. The challenge for the leadership of the sector is how to build on this success and scale up. But this will not be enough.

Elephant in the room

I agree with Sheffield Hallam colleagues that the nation needs all the help it can get to heal its wounds, reframing the discourse around the sector with a focus on shaping inclusive social change. But the sector, as well as the UK Government, need to act differently. Higher education has a gap of its own to close and that is how it sees itself and how others see it. In the Policy Exchange report, Charlie Jeffery, Vice-Chancellor, University of York, sums up the main challenge:

How well do we as a sector convey the benefits that universities bring society? At the moment, we don’t have a residual stock of goodwill. Our fundamental challenge is persuading wider society that we are a good thing.

My reading of the three sets of polling and focus groups – polling by BritainThinks, Onward and by Public First for the UPP Foundation – is that there is a growing divide between the part of the population who sees itself as benefiting from higher education and the part who have little or no contact. Public First’s polling and focus group work reveals a split in public perceptions between higher and lower socio-economic groups. Middle-class respondents – socio-economic groups A and B – are much more positive towards their local universities than groups C, D and E.

As David Goodhart has argued in The Road to Somewhere, the UK needs to find a new settlement to bridge the divide between the highly educated, influential and mobile Anywheres and the large, more rooted and less well educated Somewheres. Higher education needs to uphold excellence and help to bring about greater social cohesion.

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