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UK universities need to promote freedom of speech within the law

  • 11 May 2021
  • By Lucian J Hudson

Lucian J. Hudson, Director, Advancement and Communications, Durham University, and Chair, Earthwatch Europe, was a speaker at the HEPI Annual Policy Briefing Day. He is the lead author of the Policy Exchange paper ‘Universities at the Crossroads‘. He writes in a personal capacity. You can find Lucian on Twitter @LucianHudson.

The past year has been a gruelling one, yet the university sector has emerged in many respects stronger, more innovative, relevant and even more critical to the UK’s success globally. In my HEPI blog in May 2019 following the Annual Policy Briefing, I argued, ‘The future is worth fighting for, but only if we focus on what is distinctive and special about what the sector stands for, not least its independence, academic freedom and social purpose.’

Too much is made of ‘culture wars’. Many of us in the sector just do not believe that ‘no platforming’ is an issue. But we do need to ask ‘who do we invite?’. We should be ahead of proposed changes in UK Government legislation. This  will be about not only upholding freedom of speech within the law but promoting it. Engagement between universities and their student unions is critical. One of the main purposes of universities is to bring on the next generation of leaders and citizens, equipping them to exercise independent, critical thinking and judgment, to understand, embrace and navigate complexity and to work with different people with different perspectives. What other learning environment gives our students the space and time to think for themselves and understand views different from their own?

COVID has demonstrated that science and innovation matters and expertise matters. We all benefit from learning. This can only enhance the role of universities in their traditional role in encouraging curiosity and valuing the pursuit and application of knowledge, cultivating intelligent and informed thinking to tackle global challenges. The breadth and depth of our curricula need protecting if the UK is to remain a world power and be internationally competitive. Both STEM and SHAPE contribute to better understanding our complex and fast-changing world and finding ways to make change work for everybody’s benefit. Whatever the advances in Artificial Intelligence, human agency will still be critical for centuries to come, not least in assessing and deciding on the risks and opportunities that arise from society’s interaction with technology. The spread of globalisation has only reinforced the value that we place on cultural differences. Modern languages give us a way of appreciating and working with different cultures.

Of course some institutions that went into the pandemic financially weak will be more vulnerable. The whole sector is braced for the implications of the Augar Review and what will be a tough Comprehensive Spending Review. But the fundamentals of the sector remain sound if the strategy is a longer term one. Governing bodies and not just Vice-Chancellors and their executive teams need to take responsibility for sustainability, both financial sustainability and environmental sustainability more broadly. The entire sector needs to adapt to an even more competitive and commercial environment but show that it is distinctive by promoting and embedding social purpose. Sector bodies such as Universities UK and the Russell Group have shown leadership during COVID. Their role in acting as a catalysts and consolidators of collaboration is more important than ever in mitigating the fragmentation and division that commercialisation will increasingly bring to the sector.

What will define the sector from now on is its post-COVID response.

What will define the sector from now on is its post-COVID response. This must combine excellence and inclusion. The UK’s compelling offer is a combination of research, teaching, learning and what we in Durham call the wider student experience. In our case this includes giving our students an opportunity to develop as leaders and global citizens in a collegiate system.

As I argued when the University of Oxford introduced its step-change widening access programmes in 2019, widening participation to students from under-represented backgrounds is not just a regulatory requirement but an opportunity and strategic imperative for a leading university. More difficult yet increasingly necessary is seeing that as society changes, higher education institutions will need to rethink and refresh what makes for excellence. Excellence comes in different forms. We must not give up on the pursuit of excellence. We won’t eliminate elites – that is naïve – but we should tackle elitism and its toxic trinity of racism, sexism and classism. Equality of opportunity and social mobility will be the centre ground around which all main political parties will want to compete in future. The choice is not between upholding academic standards and widening access but opening opportunities to those students who can succeed at university.

To connect and reconnect with the public, universities now have an opportunity to communicate their value to their students, staff and stakeholders. This means accelerating change and better engaging with the mainstream government agendas in each of the Four Nations. Stakeholder engagement is no longer only a means to an end. It is crucial to what anchors an institution in its community or network of communities.

Becoming more digital is not just an additional option but part of a broader educational offering that will fast become mainstream. University degrees will have a premium status but other ways of recognising and crediting learning will also form part of the mix for employers and employees. Actively pursuing online development is essential to a hybrid future provided it forms part of a high-quality interaction with students. The Open University has pioneered ways of studying that have democratised higher education provision. Success for UK higher education lies in its diversity. We should continue to support common yet differentiated approaches to enable students to succeed, depending on their ambitions and circumstances. That diversity exists across and within institutions. In years to come, working lives will be longer and more varied. Given the advances in medicine and technology and growing acceptance of working remotely, we need to plan for societies where life will need to be affordable and meaningful for new generations of students, many of whom might well live to 120. A learning society with universities at its heart is integral to our future. This means strength in diversity, especially diversity of thinking.

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