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Chris Skidmore: Now is the time to recast universities’ relationships with their local areas

  • 14 September 2021
  • By Chris Skidmore

Today’s blog was contributed by The Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP Former Universities Minister (2018-2020), Co-Chair, All Party Group on Universities and Chair of the UPP Foundation Advisory Board. This is the foreword from today’s report by the UPP Foundation and The Bridge Group. You can find Chris on Twitter @CSkidmoreUK.

The nature and role of universities has never been under greater scrutiny. With the establishment of the Longitudinal Education Outcomes dataset, together with the publication of the Augar Review in 2019, the challenge posed to our higher education system is how institutions can not only meet increased demand for wider post-18 learning, but how they deliver ‘successful graduate outcomes’.

Yet how we define success has been a widely debated topic. Taken purely in economic terms, or by using graduate salary levels as a definition, risks encouraging a form of social mobility that stresses ‘mobility’ of students – namely to London and the South East – over the ‘social’ need for universities to act as anchor institutions in their local communities, providing a source of talent to help generate not only regional economic growth, but also to widen cultural horizons and improve the health and well-being of an area. It is perhaps time for the ‘social’ to reclaim its voice in the discussion, if we are to ensure that the contribution of universities – both economic and cultural – within their regions, is effectively recognised and rewarded.  

To focus on graduate salary alone as a benchmark for success has the potential to create the perverse outcome of incentivising graduate mobility away from the very towns in which they were educated

The work of the UPP Foundation has been instrumental in helping to establish the Civic Universities Network, which is highlighting that wider, richer, role that universities must begin to play as civic institutions. Universities cannot simply be job factories, important though their role is in creating the workforce of tomorrow. To focus on graduate salary alone as a benchmark for success has the potential to create the perverse outcome of incentivising graduate mobility away from the very towns in which they were educated, and have the potential to contribute to. As this report demonstrates, many students do stay, but surely more can be done to encourage more to do so. If we want to improve regional economic growth, driven primarily through improved skills and knowledge capital, we cannot afford as a government to leave the importance of place and improving those communities ‘left behind’ out of the discussion. And as institutions that often take their name from the towns and cities that they represent, universities too can no longer afford to ignore the politics of place.

This report by the Bridge Group highlights the need for why we need a more inclusive, careful and more balanced understanding of how we define successful graduate outcomes. Data of course remains important, but we must start to refocus on how we measure value rather than the price of higher education. The report also highlights the importance of retention of a graduate workforce within local communities: vital if we are to stand a chance of levelling up workforces and opportunities across the country. Universities have a critical role in helping to attract students, as the figures in this report demonstrate, yet more can be done to encourage greater retention for the future. The importance of commuter students and addressing their needs, often overlooked in salary data, will also be a key policy agenda for the future.

The Prime Minister has stated ‘talent is spread evenly, opportunity is not’; this report not only demonstrates that universities have a vital role in helping to spread opportunity, but also provides detailed research into the motivations and aspirations of that talent, students and young people themselves – our future workforce – as to what are the issues and barriers that prevent them from investing in the local communities they may wish to serve. Their voice deserves to be heard if we are to succeed in understanding how we can retain their talent. The importance of understanding how to fulfil the future talent within a rapidly changing workforce, understanding what a student-centred approach should look like and what future investments will be needed to deliver this, has also been the subject of the UPP Foundation’s Student Futures Commission.

None of this will be easy. If it wasn’t hard, perhaps the problem would have already been solved. Yet we should now seek to recast universities’ relationships with their local areas and how they can be viewed as working for, serving and servicing their local needs, not as a challenge, but one of opportunity.  

This report provides greater understanding of what that opportunity can be, and for those universities who read its findings, to ask themselves, not only what more they can do for their students, but what more their students can do for their local communities? If we seek to understand the changing needs of the student experience and the graduate journey, so too we can help deliver for local communities who have the potential to be enriched further by becoming partners in that journey.

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1 comment

  1. Great to see this from Chris Skidmore and I am pleased that AoC is working with the Civic University Network on how to enhance relationships between colleges and universities. That’s a vital component of how a university can be part of its community, working in partnership to develop a more coherent, clearer post-18 education system for all adults. But whilst graduate outcomes are essential to look at, so should universities be working harder on how they reach out to the local adult population, with colleges and adult education as partners, to create more inclusive learning offer which provides pathways for local people to become local graduates. Access discussions are overly-dominated by attracting 18 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds (important though that is) at the expense of debate and efforts to attract local mature students. Great to be debating, discussing and working on these issues though.

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