Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Anthony Seldon: From Policy-Takers to Policy-Makers

  • 22 February 2021
  • By Anthony Seldon

Today’s blog is an extract from this year’s Annual Lecture of the National Conference of University Professors (NCUP), which has just been delivered by Sir Anthony Seldon (the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham). You can find Anthony on Twitter @AnthonySeldon.

***Tomorrow, HEPI and Advance HE are hosting a free Vice-Chancellors’ Question Time – you can sign up for free here.***

Progressively, since the Robbins Report in 1963 and the Wilson Government from 1964, universities have ceded autonomy and control over their affairs to central government. It was not what Robbins himself visualised or thought desirable. 

David Willetts was alert to the danger of university autonomy being swallowed up by the Education Department, so he insisted on his position as Minister For Universities and Science remaining in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which he thought would be more hands-off. It could have been the beginning of a new era.

But in the seven years since Willetts stood down, with policy wavering between a succession of university ministers, rapidly-rotating Education Secretaries, and a see-sawing No 10, a singular lack of strategic thinking about the sector has been the inevitable result. What did we expect? 

We need to stop being policy-takers, and become policy-makers.

We need to stop being policy-takers, and become policy-makers. To end being agenda-followers, and become the agenda-setters. Cease being behind the media, and get out ahead of it. We have enormous power across the four nations in the economy and in society. The sector’s annual operation expenditure is close on £40 billion a year. Yet persistently, we punch below our weight.

Government has a perfectly legitimate case for saying what it wants from higher education: it after all provides some of the money. But it has only a partial view, and a transactional one. This is the heart of the issue. Universities need to assert far more forcefully the pure educational and pure research cases for higher education. Universities for a start could be making the case far more strongly for non-vocational degrees, in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and for valuing education as a good in itself.

Universities have performed superbly during COVID lockdown. They have provided the vaccines, educated the doctors and nurses, provided the scientists, epidemiologists, statisticians and mathematicians who have helped steer Government through the crisis. Not since the Second World War, when scientists, economists, linguists and mathematicians flooded into government, has the university sector been so important and apparent in the national effort.

Major changes in history have occurred at times of great disruption – wars, famines, economic crises. COVID is the opportunity for just such change. Will universities grasp this historic opportunity?

Universities should be massively conscious of their power, stature and authority. There has never been a better moment since Robbins or before to assert ourselves. Government needs them and their brains urgently and desperately if the country is to make a success of itself after Brexit, to recover after COVID, to level up, and to achieve its objectives. Without universities, government would be utterly and totally lost.

Universities, despite some lurid headlines, have done a pretty proficient job in keeping teaching, research and learning going during the lockdown. They have great stories to tell. So often though, it is the bad stories, of students fenced in, or of speakers banned from talking, as it was of excessive senior staff pay, that make the headlines. We are so used to being on the back foot, we have forgotten we have front feet.

If we come across to government as plaintiffs and deferential, that is how they will treat us.

Universities need to unify their voice and provide national leadership, as I have argued over the last five years. The usual response from the high command when I have said this is to huff and puff – but large numbers of university leaders and others across higher education agree. If we come across to government as plaintiffs and deferential, that is how they will treat us. My sense after writing about Downing Street and interviewing its staff intensively over the last 30 years is they are surprised that the sector does not stand taller. We need more attitude. To be, not more aggressive, but more assertive. We need a whiff of fear about us to permeate the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster.

If we do not assert ourselves, we will continue to be taken for granted. Whatever prime ministers may have in their minds as they plan their government appointments on the Friday afternoon after a general election, the question: ‘who should I have as my universities minister?’ is not top of their list.

It is easy to see why universities have not pulled together in the past with a united voice. There may seem to be little common ground between say the University of Oxford and the University of the Highlands and Islands. The Russell Group looks after its own interests predominantly, not that of universities at large. Universities compete with each other, increasingly, and have less sense of a collective mission or common nobility of purpose. There is little history to draw on of universities making their own policy.

The institutional structure moreover is not there at present. While Universities UK does a very good job, not least the excellent President and Chief Executive, it is not geared up to be a body with agenda, power and voice. That is why I have argued that a former vice-chancellor, freed of the burden of running their own university, and with a deep knowledge and experience in the sector, and of those in government, should serve as President for five years. Ivor Crewe, who was rejected for Chair of the Office for Students, is the kind of figure who might fill the role.

Universities UK would need to be re-configured, learning from bodies like the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) about how public advocacy peak organisations operate. It should partner with bodies like HEPI, which constantly are able to churn out eye-catching reports and research – a model of how much can be achieved with few resources. The Resolution Foundation has a media department which knows how regularly to command the headlines. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) provides a model of a leader, in its case Geoff Barton, who can articulate a unified message from a highly diverse set of members.

The Government’s intervention on free speech last week only happened because universities as a whole did not grasp the nettle.

The Government’s intervention on free speech last week only happened because universities as a whole did not grasp the nettle. Denial from some quarters in universities that there is an issue is no answer at all. A substantial proportion of the commentariat believe that there is an issue with free speech, and that university leadership has not been strong enough in standing up for it. We should have done better when making our case. 

Teaching and learning is another area where universities could have provided their own measures of what constitutes excellence, embedding a self-improving system that motivates staff, inspires students, focuses on learning and provides a lead to the sector, rather than waiting to be dictated to by outsiders. Teaching and learning lie at the very core of the mission of universities. If we can’t design our own criteria of excellence, then what hope is there?

Universities have waited and waited for a full response to the Augar report and other pronouncements. Rather than sitting around in committees trying to second guess what ministers are thinking, as has happened for years, and hanging on their words during their periodic visitations to conferences, universities could be abruptly seizing the reins from them, coming up with their own structure and finance models, and lobbying the media and others to get behind them.  

After all, who knows universities better? Politicians, who rapidly rotate, and the remarkably small number of officials who specialise in higher education in Whitehall? Or the universities themselves?

Our universities may be disunited: but they have more in common in our geographically-packed four nations than in many other countries. Greater unity can be achieved.

Universities could be challenging government now to come up with the money to compensate students whose education over the last 12 months has been so limited. Students deserve to receive some rebate and recognition, but universities themselves, least of all those struggling financially, cannot pick up the tab.

Universities could be drawing up their own standards of what excellent pastoral care looks like. The solution of more counsellors is only half the answer: we should be adopting proven positive psychology methods to build student resilience. Five years ago, when I suggested that universities pay much more attention to the mental health of the students and staff, I was told that I didn’t understand universities. I’d come out of schools. How could I know anything? The last five years has seen a wholly avoidable epidemic in student mental health and preventable suicide.

Increasingly, we are being told to step up. Rosie Bennett, latterly Education Editor at The Times, wrote last week for HEPI about how the sector needs to rethink its entire PR and relations with the media.

Our universities could lead on providing a common core that all students must study, to equip them for twenty-first century work and society. 

Finally, universities could be leading on a massive push to digital education. There can be no going back to the pre-digital universe that existed before COVID. We are on the cusp of the AI fourth education revolution, which will transform, far more than COVID has, the way we teach, learn, research and enrich the student experience. Universities can again be leading the country, and world, in these new technologies, which will only enhance the depth and joy of learning and research, and student satisfaction.

What is stopping universities becoming policy-makers rather than policy-takers? How will history judge us if we revert after COVID to the status quo ante? These are fair questions to ask.

1 comment

  1. Steve McArdle says:

    Public perception of the sector is driven by experience as well as the media. Behaviour over undergraduate admissions being a case in point. The closure of SPA as an advisory group for a community of good practice coincided with the explosion of incentivised offers, against the best interests of applicants. This is now leading to increased regulation by government via a weaponised OfS and changes to the entire admissions process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *