This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech, Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick and incoming Chief Executive Officer of London Higher. You can find Diana on Twitter @dianajbeech .
England’s higher education sector is no stranger to Government challenge.
Over the past five years, in particular, it has almost become commonplace for Government ministers to take higher education institutions to task over issues they feel are undermining the sector’s integrity: take senior executive pay, for example, grade inflation or poor graduate outcomes.
Although there is no silver bullet to solve any one of these issues quickly, the sector has at least been able to come together to devise cross-sector approaches and agree common standards and principles to tackle recurring problems. We witnessed this just last week through the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment’s commitment to protect the value of qualifications across the nation, which was endorsed by both Universities UK and GuildHE.
Under the current Boris Johnson administration, however, new battle lines have been set.
Although now well into the first of its five-year term in office, the current Government came to power with a renewed emphasis on ‘place’. Not only was the ‘levelling up’ agenda writ large in the Conservative Party manifesto, but it also pledged to ‘strengthen universities and colleges’ civic role’ and ‘use science and research to unite and level up our country’.
Whichever way you look at it, the concept of ‘place’ has been thrust front and centre of this Government’s political strategy – to spread opportunity, to boost regional economies, and to do justice to newly-won voters in parts of the country that feel ‘left-behind’.
What this means for universities and colleges is that they are expected to double-down on their roles as ‘anchor institutions’ in their regions, acting as good-quality employers, educators and facilitators – be it supporting local supply chains, attracting inward investment, or enhancing the social and cultural cohesion of the areas around them.
The notion of the ‘civic university’ is not new and has been brewing in the background for some time. Recent changes in No. 10 have nevertheless given the concept a new lease of life and we are now starting to see a place-based approach to policy play out in practice.
As is evident from the Education Secretary’s recent further education speech, together with his foreword to the university ‘Restructuring Regime’, this Government clearly wants universities and colleges to look local. This means working within their respective localities on skills and economic development to ensure local businesses and vital public services have access to the resources and talent they need.
Even the Government’s big push for science isn’t without a renewed emphasis on ‘place’. The recently published UK Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap commits to ‘take greater account of place-based outcomes’ and deliver stronger local economic benefit. This is set to be fleshed out in more detail in an additional R&D Place Strategy later this year.
Over the past five months, our universities and colleges have certainly needed no encouragement to display placed-based leadership. In many ways, this year’s coronavirus pandemic has allowed higher education institutions of all shapes and sizes to step up and do what they do best – be it pushing the frontiers of science to find a cure, enhancing frontline services with equipment and expertise, or just generally supporting local people through community volunteering and civic outreach activities.
And now, as lockdown restrictions ease, universities and colleges remain at the forefront of regional recovery strategies, providing the jobs, training opportunities and vital infrastructure projects that are key to getting our towns and cities back on track.
The role of ‘place’ in both higher education and research policy has never been more prominent.
As a result, the Government will be watching closely how institutions continue to deliver for their cities and regions, and how they are working collaboratively with others in their localities to raise people’s prospects and prosperity. This may mean working with other further or higher education institutions outside of traditional mission group alignments and finding ways to work together in regional educational ecosystems to hone a depth and breadth of provision.
Although this does not spell an end to the need for traditional cross-sector representation, it certainly reinvigorates the role of regional networks, which can better make the case for a specific area and bring very different institutions together to maximise the opportunities and jointly address the challenges of operating in a particular place.
It is for this reason that I am thrilled to announce I will be taking on the role of CEO at London Higher this autumn – the ‘umbrella’ body representing 40 universities and higher education colleges based in London.
With so much emphasis currently being put on reinvigorating the UK regions, it is absolutely vital that levelling up for the rest of the country does not mean levelling down for London. To do so would be to overlook the stark differences and inequalities between the different London boroughs and risk inner-city disparities becoming even worse.
Of course, London is – and should remain – a world-class higher education destination, and this is something the entire UK university sector can benefit from. But given the current political climate, it is equally important to show London’s higher education institutions do not just enhance national and global economies but positively touch the lives of local people and industries too.
So, as I prepare to venture on to pastures new, I shall take with me the good practice I’ve been privileged to witness during my time at the University of Warwick, whose positive impact stretches far beyond the boundaries of its Coventry and Warwickshire campuses, reaching right across the West Midlands and Warwickshire regions. Its participation in several Midlands research partnerships, not to mention its involvement in ‘Coventry City of Culture 2021’ and continued efforts to reach out into local communities, has shown me what it means to be a genuine anchor in a local area.
Being truly civic is set to be key to future sector success. And I look forward to playing my part from October to help London’s universities and colleges thrive under the Government’s new lens on all things local.