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The challenges to higher education in the coming months and years by Glyn Davis

  • 9 July 2020
  • By Glyn Davis

HEPI is reproducing here the speech that Glyn Davis, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne (from 2005 to 2018), made earlier this week to the fifth Buckingham Festival of HE, which was held with support by Pearson and on which HEPI partnered. Glyn is now the Chief Executive Officer of the Paul Ramsay Foundation, Australia’s largest philanthropic trust. His recent books include The Australian Idea of a University.

Let me begin by thanking Sir Anthony Seldon for the invitation to speak in such distinguished company.

And regards from Melbourne, a city which managed COVID well the first time round only to experience a return wave.  We are largely back in lockdown, though infections remain low.

Yet here we are, in our thousands, COVID screening test results in hand, eyes on Zoom, showing how quickly universities can change, as we learn and teach on screen.

Sir Anthony has asked me to speculate on likely challenges to higher education. 

I can do no better than quote former Cambridge Vice-Chancellor Eric Ashby, who wrote in 1967 that 

it is for creative writers to tell us what the environments of tomorrow’s world will be like.  But we already know what its heredity will be like

So the factors shaping the immediate future of the sector are already in play.  The interesting question is how current trends will combine and consolidate.

This moment

Just last week Anthony wrote an engaging article in the Times Higher Education – ‘My biggest failure was being a v-c.

He described, with wry self-deprecation, the way a vice-chancellor is hostage to fortune – to government policy above all, but also to league tables and institutional inertia disguised as tradition.

But Anthony also discovered something important when leading a university: how deeply our institutions are embedded in community, so choices made in the chancellery have repercussions beyond campus, not only for those who study, work, live there, but also for region, nation , society.

I can only agree.  To be asked to lead a university is an extraordinary honour, and most of us embrace with enthusiasm.  Only slowly do we grasp the full dimensions of the responsibilities we have accepted.  When things go wrong, there is an icy realisation the work of generations can be undone by a foolish strategy, an unthinking minister, an unanticipated pandemic.

Anthony closes his reflection by describing COVID as ‘the biggest challenge to the university sector in history.’  

The Black Death closed permanently 5 of Europe’s 30 universities in the mid-15th century. We might imagine destruction of similar proportions as this pandemic

It is certainly our biggest challenge in a very long time. The Black Death closed permanently 5 of Europe’s 30 universities in the mid-15th century. We might imagine destruction of similar proportions as this pandemic, and those which might follow, cut their way through the sector.

As with the Black Death, major dislocation also encourages innovation.  We are living the future already, as Eric Ashby predicted – the end of the familiar lecture, the arrival of virtual instruction, universities operating for months at a stretch with no one on campus.

COVID-19 has already changed delivery and instruction for many students.  It will question expensive investment in infrastructure.  It will invite students to put together a degree selecting courses from many different institutions.

And it will change how governments see universities. For if everyone can teach on line, if courses look interchangeable, and if the nexus between teaching and research looks ever more tenuous, then so is the idea that each university is unique, separate and necessarily autonomous. 

Anthony talked about universities trying to carve out their own path despite an often uncaring government, noting Buckingham struggled under student caps and funding categories that offered no recognition of different missions and profiles.

If COVID is a test for universities it is also tells us something interesting about contemporary party ideology.

Britain and Australia both have conservative governments, both tested and returned in elections during 2019.  We might expect very similar responses to the crisis.

After all, both nations have seen sustained criticism of universities, often levelled by senior ministers.

We’ve all heard the chorus of complaints about arrogant universities that resist government priorities, value research over teaching, and do not address community ambitions.  In Australia, politicians attack universities for supporting their operations through recruiting international students, particularly from China.

Higher education ministers have not held back – universities have been labelled as inefficient, with overpaid vice-chancellors and overly generous wages and conditions for staff in a time of austerity. 

In such a climate, asks higher education analyst Simon Marginson, ‘What greater good would be lost if universities closed tomorrow?’

Such a question should be unthinkable.  Once universities were praised for their trustworthiness and standing, but they can no longer assume respect.  A Pew Research poll found a majority of Republican voters in the United States – 58 per cent – now view colleges and universities as negative influences on their country.

John Morgan wrote in the Times Higher Education last December that as ‘Conservatives turn towards non-graduate voters, they may find universities a tempting target for economic and cultural hits.’

There is ample evidence of voter resentment against the perceived privilege of university graduates and their view of the world. 

Antagonism is accentuated by the collapse of familiar vocational careers, the eclipse of apprenticeships, the destruction of earlier certainties about hard work, fairness and opportunity.  The world no longer seems predictable or navigable.  People accustomed to careers in stable organisations, find their moorings kicked away.

With such anger abroad, it is not hard to understand the frustration of elected politicians.  Universities pay little tax yet are remorseless in asking for more public money.  They champion themselves as innovators yet resist political pressures for applied research and immediate impact.  These large and wealthy institutions seem to prefer international students to locals and drive up property prices.  


So if a government wants to act against universities, the COVID-19 crisis provides the perfect moment.  It could be used to crystallise the public critique built over recent years, and justify major policy change.

How then to read the signals?

In Britain they seem decidedly mixed.  Back in May the Johnson government turned down requests to bail-out institutions.  More recently Minister for Universities Michelle Donelan criticised English universities for offering dumbed-down courses to keep up student numbers. 

Allied to enrolments caps, this has been interpreted as ending a long period of growth and holding the UK sector roughly to current demographic profile.

On the other hand, the UK government has worked to reopen access for foreign students.  And impressively, it has announced two packages to support research in UK universities and institutes.  This sees Whitehall covering up to 80 percent of university income losses from international students, with a further £280 million to support key research projects, particularly responses to Covid.

This recognises the leadership of UK higher education.  For as Nature reported back in June:

If a vaccine were to emerge from the United Kingdom, it would emerge from a UK university,” says Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

There can seem two logics at work – a scepticism about the value of universities among education authorities contrasting with recognition by economic agencies that universities are vital to Britain’s recovery and remain the engine of the nation’s research effort.

By contrast, there is no ambiguity about the view of the Australian national government. It does not like universities full stop.  Canberra has used the sudden loss of income from international education – Australia’s fourth largest export income – to cut further its own funding to the sector and to introduce significant new regulation.

As one government Senator enthusiastically posted on social media, there is ‘no need to bail out bloated universities’ – they should feel the pain of relying on Chinese students to pay the bills.

The Senator was not so concerned about the same government providing subsidies to Australian farmers or tourist operators – who, it turns out, are more dependent on Chinese income than the tertiary sector.

Yet the Senator will presumably be happy by the Australian policy response – the Education minister has announced an overall 15 percent reduction in direct government funding.  This includes an almost complete end to funding for the study of humanities, law, economics, business and social sciences. The single largest cut is to funding of environmental studies.

And the government has used the opportunity formally to cut any tie between research and teaching; in future university funding is solely about learning. How universities are to fund research remains unresolved.

So conservative governments can reach quite different conclusions about the future of higher education.

So conservative governments can reach quite different conclusions about the future of higher education.  They can seek to rebuild the sector as a national resource quickly, as in Britain, or decide now is the opportunity to constrain public expenditure and reduce the span and reach of higher education, as in Australia.

The difference in outlook has many practical consequences.  There are estimates 7,000 researcher-only Australian research-only staff lose their employment.  Universities Australia predict a total of 21,000 job lost from Australian universities.  It is a sobering moment when national policy can contemplate such devastation.


So Anthony is right – though universities pride themselves on autonomy, most are hostages to government policy.  We cannot assume a benign ministry, a government that values contribution to the economy or sees a place for universities in its vision of the nation’s prosperity.  Even governments with similar worldviews can land on very different policy responses.

the response by British and Australian universities to the pandemic has been consistent and, I would suggest, extraordinarily impressive.

Yet while governments diverge, the response by British and Australian universities to the pandemic has been consistent and, I would suggest, extraordinarily impressive.

Necessity favours invention, and changes that might otherwise take a decade were achieved in weeks – whole courses transferred on line, technology deployed to handle student administration, exams, course guidance and counselling, even graduation ceremonies.

And, of course, international research collaboration has accelerated as governments turn to universities for expert advice, vaccine development, public health students joining the medical workforce early to bolster hospital capacity.   

On this reading the UK sector will bounce back reasonably quickly, thanks largely to government support.  It will not be the system we knew in February 2020, but something more like 2030 on fast forward.

Australian universities have demonstrated similar innovation and public spirit, but recovery will take longer to deliver because government has proved much less sympathetic.  If Canberra does not address the research gap then Australia’s extraordinary performance over recent decades – 7 universities in the ARWU top 100, compared to 8 in Britain, but achieved with less than half the population – will stop abruptly.  

Captive to fortune indeed.

And beyond that?  We’ve heard predictions for twenty years now about the imminent collapse of the public university, the end of campus life, the rise of industry specific qualifications through micro credentials, the inevitable triumph of private start-ups over stultified traditional providers.

A lot of people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere have lost a huge amount of money betting on those propositions.  They remain disappointed.  The public sector and the not-for-profit sector prove remarkably agile. COVID-19 has demonstrated that again – who would have guessed last Christmas British universities would contemplate a delay to the start of the academic year this September knowing they can provide a high quality on line alternative?

So, pace Eric Ashby, which strands in our current world will become more prominent?

Let me close by suggesting two.

First, on line delivery done to high standard is no cheaper than traditional delivery, but it can break geographic boundaries.  Which means universities can specialise more, develop distinctive strengths and offerings because they are no longer constrained by ability to attract enough local students in a classroom to make a course viable.  

On line and blended learning open up new possibilities for universities with the courage to experiment – and that should mean any institution keen to reduce its reliance on government funding.

And second, heading in the other direction, universities will need to nurture a constituency beyond campus to stop governments treating them with distain.  As Anthony discovered in his life as a Vice-Chancellor, community is what matters.

‘I have never before appreciated the economic, cultural and social impact of universities so fully’ he concluded.

It is the key message too of the 2019 report Truly Civic: Strengthening the connection between universities and their places, chaired by Lord Kerslake and very admirably advised by our previous presenter Rachel Wolf.

The Report, and here I quote Rachel, ‘demonstrated how vital universities are to the success of their places, and how much more the sector and government can do to support the prosperity and wellbeing of people across the country.’

Nobody else will make this case. Universities must do the hard work of explaining, persuading, building a constituency.  We should not assume voters understand the benefits of a campus particularly, as Anthony points out, in disadvantaged communities.   

So go global to build sustainable specialisations, and local to build support through practical action.  Use the lessons of Covid to ensure the richest possible mix of student choice.  

And take pride that, at an existential moment, our fellow academics, university administrators and leaders have demonstrated impressive ability to adapt and change.  Though some persished, most universities survived the Black Death, and went on to shape much of the world we inhabit.  

We can do so again.

1 comment

  1. Professor Elizabeth More, AM says:

    Excellent overview of challenges …. but it is also to be remembered that private/independent education which in Australia provides 10% in Higher Education is important as is the vocational sector which needs further support than it now gets. Thank you

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