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How the Government should reset its relationship with universities

  • 18 November 2020
  • By Richard Brabner

This blog was kindly contributed by Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation. This article is written in a personal capacity and is not the view of the UPP Foundation. 

Over the last few days, newspapers have been full of stories and insight into what the changes in No. 10 mean for the Government and its agenda moving forward. Some have suggested this gives the Prime Minister the opportunity to ‘reset’ his administration – moving away from a method of government which has been aggressive, divisive and controlling to one which is more consensual and civil.

Earlier in the summer, I wrote a piece for HEPI on ways universities can forge a better relationship with this Government. It is fair to say this partnership needs some TLC. Indeed, it has been difficult for a long time, well before Boris Johnson was Prime Minister.  

A frosty relationship is certainly to the cost of universities – but whether they appreciate it or not – it is also to the cost of the Government and what it’s trying to achieve. At the heart of the difficulty seems to be a belief that universities are a net-negative to the ‘Just About Managing’ classes (there’s currently a debate going on in Tory circles about the purpose of the Government, brilliantly detailed by Rachel Wolf for Conservative Home).

Like Rachel, I believe it would be a mistake to move away from the levelling up agenda. But whether it’s supporting towns, developing better adult education and skills, better public services, rebooting the economy and overcoming unemployment, universities are part of the solution.

Given the recent news and the prospects of a change in the Government’s approach, it’s time to look at the other side of this relationship – what should the Government do to reset its partnership with our sector, so that it is less hostile and more constructive?

As a starter for 10, below are five ideas for the Government.

1. Stop blaming universities for the perceived problems with the system   

Whether it is conditional unconditional offers, grade inflation, and issues around quality and standards, the Government and its supporters in the media and policy world blame universities. This should stop.

Ultimately, all these issues relate to incentives, and in the case of recruitment issues, are collective action problems. For example, unless you expect university leaders to accept declining numbers, falling income and redundancies, if one university adopts aggressive recruitment techniques, others must follow.

Broadly speaking, our sector wants a level playing field, and incentives/accountability measures which are consistent and coherent. Rather than brief hostile media about the behaviour of universities, the Government should work with us to change the incentives in the system and see it that these issues are resolved.

It might be difficult to recognise that the problems are the fault of a system created by successive governments, rather than universities. But we are still only a year into this Parliament. The public will appreciate candid honesty and won’t blame the Prime Minister for the failings of other administrations.

2. Climb out of the Goodhart trap

David Goodhart and other thoughtful ‘traditionalist’ critics of the sector provide a compelling narrative around the impact of the higher education market on ‘place’ and how, as a society, we recognise and reward merit. But as much as they might not like it, the fact is universities are popular, even with those who haven’t gone. Recent polling for the UPP Foundation found that over half of those aged 18 to 34 from ‘the other 50%’ (eg those that have up to Level 3 qualifications) would like to gain a degree.

The Goodhart trap removes student behaviour, ambition and choice as the central factor in the tertiary system in the UK. This creates bad policy, which was all too clear to see when the Government criticised expansion in July and then scrambled to allow as many students as possible to enter university after the A-Levels debacle.

The Government should also be wary of restricting choice based on what they think is valuable compared to what students want to study or train in. By overly worrying about the labour market and not student demand, many people who would be transformed by education and training will miss out as it won’t appeal to their motivations. 

No. 10 and the Department for Education (DfE) should work with the tertiary system we have, rather than the utopian one we will never create, to overcome the problems identified by the post-liberal traditionalists. They won’t be rewarded by making it harder for either the Just About Managing classes or Affluent Britain to go to university or undertake the training they want to do.

3. Use universities to level up

There’s been a huge amount of discussion around the ‘civic’ agenda since the UPP Foundation ran the Civic University Commission in 2018 to 2019. It clearly had an impact within the sector and in the policymaking world (it was included in the Conservative Party’s manifesto and warmly embraced by Labour too).

While there has been recognition, rhetorically, of the role universities can play to support local communities – it is time for real action. As the central figure within government, the new No. 10 should compel all levers of its administration  to recognise the role universities can play, and come up with policies which support and incentivise our sector to support the ‘left behind’. The recent UPP Foundation report on levelling up details the five areas universities could focus on to support this agenda.

4. Dial down the culture war

There are some problems with wider cultural issues within the academy (such as a chilling effect, a hostile online discourse and monoculture which I’ve written about before) but they are exaggerated by the sector’s critics. Indeed, some of the solutions the culture warriors on the right have come up with – such as regulation to enforce academic freedom – are classic examples of the cure being worse than the disease.

Instead there should be recognition that heavy-handed government intervention – however well intentioned – is unlikely to solve an issue which is about organisational culture. The Government should work with universities to dial down the culture war and look at ways at making an academic career attractive for people with a diversity of views and backgrounds.

5. Speak to staff and students, not just leaders

An obvious point. To have a fuller understanding of the sector and to successfully implement policy, the Government should look to more actively engage with universities beyond representative bodies and leaders. It is these staff and students who are delivering on the ground, after all.

In normal circumstances the trade unions might help with this, but it is unlikely that constructive engagement between this Government and UCU is possible, given UCU’s focus on protest and campaigning rather than dialogue and compromise. With trust in short supply it inevitably means the Government has to go over the union’s head to engage university staff. They should be looking to build diverse networks (not simply partisans) of university staff and students who are willing to engage constructively.

We also don’t really have a good unfiltered barometer of staff opinion in the sector. Building upon the excellent Teacher Tapp and Parent Ping initiatives, which provide daily insights of teachers and parents, the Government could look to develop or just encourage a similar application for university staff. This would help the current Government and future administrations have a better understanding of staff experiences, concerns and behaviours. To be effective it would need to be be  independent  from universities, trade unions and the Government themselves.

Conclusion

Scepticism towards the value of our sector is well spread amongst Conservatives and conservatives. But, ultimately, our sector is key to the delivery of the Government’s agenda (as it is to any government). An approach based on hostility in the popular press and coercion through crude policy making is not going to help with the delivery and implementation of policy. And because of the autonomy and arms-length nature of universities, it may even harm it.

To finish on a hopeful note. The changes in No. 10 provide the Government with an opportunity for a reset with our sector. It is in their interests to take it.

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