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A Test of Spirit for English Higher Education

  • 7 March 2022
  • By Diana Beech

This guest blog was kindly written by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher – the representative body for the UK’s largest regional higher education powerhouse in London. Diana was previously Policy Adviser to the last three Universities Ministers, and you can find her on Twitter at @dianajbeech.

The publication of the Government’s long-awaited response to the review of post-18 education last week came as a bolt from the blue for many in England’s higher education sector.

Coupled with the highly technical consultations released by the Office for Students (OfS) just a few weeks previously, the latest Government proposals for higher education have seen many of us frantically carving out time to chomp through hundreds of pages of policy proposals and attempt to digest the details.

At pinch points like these, it is easy to become overwhelmed and to lose yourself in the specifics. Yet, when faced with a swathe of proposals which, if implemented together, would change the shape and nature of higher education in England as we know it, it is important not to lose sight of the ‘big picture’ and the realities of what is at stake.

For, what we are facing now is not a series of seemingly independent consultations concerned with the minutiae of regulation, but a multi-pronged and coordinated assault on the values our higher education sector holds dear

The initial tranche of OfS consultations may well invite us to talk the dry, technocratic talk of the regulator as we compile our responses to new complex data points, metrics and statistical indicators. Yet, we must not let the mechanics of regulation zap the passion and belief out of universities’ fundamental role as engines of social progress and human development. That’s because the next round of consultations we have to tackle in May is going to be a true test of the sector’s spirit.

Responding to the Government’s latest proposals to reintroduce student number controls or impose minimum eligibility requirements will require from the length and breadth of the sector convincing counterarguments rooted in the core mission and purpose of our universities and colleges. These are arguments that not only speak to those who have direct experience of higher education, but arguments that also cut through with those who do not.

They will be arguments based on the very real human, societal values of what higher education brings to individuals and to communities, and they must be powerful enough to expose the injustices of restricting opportunities to those less fortunate in our society.

With options now laid out in black and white which could close the door on the sector’s role in promoting social mobility and reducing inequalities, now is not the time for passive acceptance. Instead, the proposed reforms in front of us should be the ‘green light’ our sector needs to prove once and for all its collective value to the nation – not just economically by speaking the language of the Treasury, but also spiritually by speaking the language of the people – or the Government’s future electorate.

Sustainable sector reform must be grounded in much more than material benefits to individuals, evaluated by salary levels, employment options and grade boundaries. In any case, all these measures are affected by external factors outside the control of individuals and their chosen places of study. 

More appropriate regulation for our sector should be based on values. Any government looking to unlock a new era of economic, social and cultural prosperity for the nation should be concerned with the overall societal impacts and benefits which our higher education sector brings to our lives. This includes, among others, community cohesion, spatial regeneration, environmental improvements and increased health and wellbeing. 

Ten years ago, while an academic, I led a project focused on restoring values to European science. Back then, concerns were mounting across Europe’s research community that policymakers risked overlooking the true value of knowledge and education to tackle the world’s grand challenges and societal problems in pursuit of a new metric-driven ‘knowledge economy’ operating in a vacuum of spiritual values.

A decade later, I find myself making the same case again; only this time for a values-based regulatory framework which would preserve the essence of what higher education brings to this country through enhancing opportunities and changing the lives of those both on and off university campuses.

Societal and environmental advancements are inherent to what universities do. They also represent genuine levelling-up and bring progress and innovation to all parts of the country, free from the political prioritisation of areas where future votes matter.

The proposals on the table are a threat to the character of higher education. It is now in our gift to make sure we stand up and save the soul of the sector.

On Thursday 10 March 2022 HEPI and Advance HE are jointly hosting a webinar on equality and diversity. To register your place, please click here.

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