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‘Back in Business: what can modern universities do to support Britain’s recovery?’

  • 28 September 2020
  • By Nick Hillman

I am one of that small group of people who is genuinely sad that the autumn political party conferences are (necessarily) not happening in person this year. They are eccentric affairs, but genuinely good fun and interesting for anyone with a passion for policymaking.

They are also useful occasions for reading the runes, as politicians often use their conferences to throw a little red meat to their supporters that can give an indication of future policy direction.

The annual party conferences are, perhaps, particularly important to a sector like education, which is typically regarded as leaning one way politically, as they let a wide audience in on what might otherwise be a private conversation on the other side of the political spectrum.

For the past few years, HEPI has always had a presence at the Conservative and Labour conferences and, sometimes, at the Lib Dems’ shindigs too. In the past four years, our party conference events – hosted with UPP – have focused on the student voice (2015), students’ mental health (2016), industrial strategy (2017), commuter students (2018) and student accommodation (2019).

This year, we are co-sponsoring an online event with MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, at the Conservative Party Conference fringe. Themed around the topic of ‘Back in Business: what can modern universities do to support Britain’s recovery?’, it will provide an opportunity to get under the skin of the positive and less positive messages that have come out of the Department for Education in recent years.

If the recent virtual Labour Conference is anything to go by, then we can rest assured that online party conference events about higher education can be just as engaging and lively as in-person ones. The list of questions to address is almost endless.

  • How can we ensure the current crisis deepens universities’ local roots rather than enflames tension with local communities?
  • What skills is the post-COVID reshaped economy likely to need?
  • How much of a regional aspect do we want in our decisions about research funding?
  • What is the role of universities as employers?
  • Have we got the right balance between academic and technical?
  • Do we send too many, or too few, people to university?

Our joint event will also be an opportunity for the sector to hear direct and in public from the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson. Many recent Ministers for Universities have spoken at HEPI events and we have always found them willing and keen to engage (in my time as HEPI Director, that has included Willetts, Johnson, Skidmore, Gyimah and Donelan). But we have not, in recent years, hosted an event with the Secretary of State for Education and I am delighted that we are now able to rectify that thanks to our partnership with MillionPlus. Given his recent remarks on higher education participation, the summer’s results row and the impending spending review, not to mention the disrupted start to the academic year, there could not be a better time to do it.

We hope to see you there – virtually rather than in person (so, remember, to bring your own refreshments this time).

PS Also don’t forget our webinar this week, with Chris Millward (the Director of Fair Access and Participation), Lee Elliot Major, (Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter), Professor Andrea Nolan (Principal and Vice-Chancellor at Edinburgh Napier University) and Dr Liz Marr, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Students) at the Open University.

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