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Universities rose to the challenge during COVID: where’s the public recognition?

  • 13 April 2022
  • By John Cater

This blog was contributed by Dr John Cater, Vice-Chancellor of Edge Hill University.

Two years ago, every night at 5pm, we were listening to a prevaricating Prime Minister flanked by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer. And every morning, at every university, the senior team tried to decipher Boris Johnson’s implicit messaging. This was not an easy task as we progressively withdrew from the traditional living and learning model that had served throughout our careers.

Universities rose to the challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first vaccine was developed in a university, disease epidemiology was modelled in universities, governments were advised, often (if not always) sagely, by universities. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, and operating theatre staff who were trained by universities returned for short upskilling development sessions. Teaching staff and trainees volunteered for frontline roles in the National Health Service; all personal protective equipment was handed to devoid and desperate Hospital Trusts; and analytical equipment and deep freezers were collected by the Ministry of Defence for deployment in Nightingale hospitals.  

Many universities went further by housing hundreds of key workers to enable them to continue supporting health care without risking taking infection back into their family homes. They also provided a home (and food) for tens of thousands of students who were not able to, or did not wish to, return to their out-of-term-time base. And universities facilitated and accommodated some of the very first testing and vaccination centres.

Universities can claim to have more than played their part in responding to these tragic and challenging circumstances. Unlike the debacle in the assessment of, and progression of, Level Two and Level Three students, universities made modules available online in a matter of days, provided equipment and distributed financial support to home-based or university-hall students and, crucially, graduated, with barely a murmur of concern or dissent, a million or more students.

Every Thursday at eight, saucepans were bashed in support of the National Health Service, shopworkers, refuse collectors, and deservedly so. Universities? Not so much. Why?

As a collective, universities have increasingly lost public support. The esteem in which the sector once bathed has long since faded. Universities are not blameless. In a social media society, peppered by Freedom of Information requests, every quirk, every foible, every error of judgment, risks being magnified, and magnified through a telescope.

Universities are complex organizations.  Even a mid-sized institution will have more than 15,000 students, perhaps 5,000 student homes, 3,000 staff, a billion-pounds estate, theatres, sports centres, retail outlets, catering outlets, bars and social facilities. And things will always go wrong. The most important single thing a long-serving Vice-Chancellor needs is luck, as well as a supportive governing council. 

But the sector also needs a supportive state. The collective sigh of relief when the sector emerged bruised rather than battered from the Department for Education’s response to the Augar review was telling. Why should a key engine of growth, a key exporter, the driver of research and development, feel relief when its real-term’s teaching funding is cut by a third between 2012 and 2025? Why should five pence off a litre of fuel matter more than life chances for thousands of young people in the state’s spending priorities?

Political parties spend hundreds of thousands on market research. Media professionals know what resonates with their key audiences. And, despite much of the evidence base and the sterling work of many, it is not universities.

But there is a dichotomy. Parents overwhelmingly want their children to have a university education and, despite continued attempts to redefine that, a three-year undergraduate degree, often away from (but not too far away from) home, remains the goal, the perceived gold standard. And, stripped back, whilst there may be an argument for re-shaping (some) education, no one wants a less educated society. Graduates are more likely to be contributors, socially and economically, to a cohesive society, to make fewer demands on the underpinning state.  

Ask any Brexiteer and see how few have changed their minds. We all have ‘sunk costs’, opinions we’ve formed, decisions we’ve subscribed to, and resources we’ve committed, that we’re reluctant to waver from. Changing perceptions takes evidence and time. And perception change is best built from the bottom up. The family, the applicant, the beneficiary of a new drug treatment, the local community dependent on the university pound, the sub-regional economy. It’s a long process, but evidence of the extent of the role universities play in society’s dependence has been there throughout the past 25 months. The extent to which it has resonated? Rather less.

We will return to our usual blog schedule on Wednesday 20 April.

Our hybrid Policy Briefing Day is on 27 April 2022. Institutions that support HEPI are entitled to a free place.

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1 comment

  1. Steve Marks says:

    Universities have a good intent but become money making machines and elevated themselves above others on the basis of being academics. The fees are appallingly high, especially post lockdown when students were unable to attend f2f lectures because the institutions couldn’t be bothered to install entry based covid screening systems. Yet, there was no discount for remote learning and Uni’s are happy for most students to walk away with +£60K dept for services based upon online learning . Not to mention overseas students fees and the damage this is doing to international trade. Their engagement with industry is little short of pathetic as they talk the talk but can’t walk the walk as few are genuine havens of innovation.
    Opportunities for Uni’s are huge but it is essential that there is a major rethink and less back slapping.

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