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We need our brilliant modern universities to tackle the big issues of the future 

  • 4 July 2022
  • By Rachel Hewitt

This blog was kindly contributed by Rachel Hewitt, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities. Rachel formerly worked at the Higher Education Policy Institute, as Director of Policy and Advocacy. Before this, Rachel held a number of roles at the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

It has been almost a year since I joined MillionPlus, and it has been quite the year of higher education developments. To some degree, it would be easy to get caught up in the challenges in higher education and what they could mean for our part of the sector. Since last summer we’ve seen four Office for Students consultations on quality and standards, the outcomes of the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Market Reviewcoming to fruition, consultations on research and innovation across England and Scotland and ongoing funding challenges on both sides of the border, including the recent announcement of, at best, a funding freeze in Scotland over the next five years as well as a continued fee freeze in England.

However, in the time I’ve been at MillionPlus, I’ve only confirmed my belief in the critical importance of the diversity of the UK higher education sector and the strength of offering among our modern universities. 

As well as responding to the many consultation and policy developments, since I joined MillionPlus I’ve been working on our strategy and considering our identity both as an organisation but also that of our collective membership. As part of this, I’ve been reflecting on what makes up the core ‘shared missions’ of MillionPlus institutions, considering not just what they do but also who they are. The conclusion I have reached is that MillionPlus member institutions:

  • are placemakers in their local area;
  • drive social mobility;
  • are forward-looking and responsive to change;
  • produce innovative, applied and translational research;
  • work collaboratively with business and boost the public sector workforce; and
  • deliver excellent teaching which provides the skills for students to succeed.

While there are challenges facing modern universities, I believe we shouldn’t underestimate how they can utilise these shared missions to face those challenges and reaffirm their position.

The role of modern universities in the levelling-up agenda

Since I joined MillionPlus, I have been visiting our member universities, covering the breadth of the country from Inverness to Southampton, and from Preston to East London. In these visits it has really come through to me how embedded these institutions are within their local area. As our recent report, Staying local to go far: modern universities as placemakers found, more than 68 per cent of students at modern universities come from the local area and go on to work in the region post-graduation, countering ideas of ‘graduate brain drain’. These universities are not accidentally local, but embedded within the local community, through relationships with local schools, colleges, NHS trusts, councils and more, as the diagram below demonstrates. They feed the public sector workforce, with modern universities educating 73 per cent of nursing students and 67 per cent of teacher training students.

As Lord Kerslake said at the recent HEPI / AdvanceHE Parliamentary Seminar, there is a place for someone to write the university chapter missing from the Levelling Up White Paper – I hope our report can be a contribution to doing so. While much of the focus of the higher education sector may be on the ever-changing policy within the sector, we should not lose sight of the central role that universities, and particularly modern universities, must play in helping the Government to ‘level up’ the country.

The image is taken from our Staying Local to Go Far report and attempts to map the range of local partners with which a typical modern university engages, in order to explore social value through a stakeholder approach.

Social mobility and innovative teaching 

Social mobility is clearly core to what MillionPlus institutions do. They include and support anyone who has the ambition, talent and desire to succeed in higher education, whatever their background and wherever they live in the UK. I witnessed this during my visits to our member institutions, and it became very clear that the principles of social mobility and social justice were keenly held by all the staff I had the pleasure to meet. This puts modern universities in a strong position to respond to challenges that learners can face in entering higher education. Last summer, as many were concerned about lost learning that students would have suffered in their final years of schooling, I was impressed by the quiet confidence among leaders in modern universities in tackling this. As universities who regularly take on students from all types of backgrounds and support them to succeed, they were not daunted by the impact of the pandemic on the incoming cohort. This also aligns with their forward-looking approach – despite many having long histories, they are modern in their year of achieving university status and also by the approach they take to tackling future challenges, countering the narrative that the higher education sector is slow to move or adapt. 

The greatest challenge in their missions of striving for social mobility, delivering excellent teaching, and adapting for the future is the somewhat narrow way that universities are currently being judged. Maintaining good quality and standards are, of course, critically important in higher education. However, at the moment, in England, it is outcomes above all else which are being used to judge quality, moving away from wider reflections of the journey students have gone on through their university experience, or as some might describe it, their learning gain. This risks damaging the role that universities play in driving social mobility.

However, there are also opportunities on the horizon to expand higher education to a more diverse group of students. The lifelong loan entitlement provides an opportunity to support learners looking to reskill and upskill, and could help to address the long-term decline in mature learners and part-time study that we have seen. Modern universities are well-set to lead this agenda.

Research excellence in modern universities

The importance of the innovative, applied and translational research undertaken and invested in at MillionPlus universities was recently highlighted by their success in the 2021 REF results. Modern universities have often been underestimated in their research capabilities, and yet they play a vital role in producing research that, if not done by them, wouldn’t be done at all, bridging the gap between academia and industry. 

The positive outcomes of REF 2021 were replicated in Scotland and have translated to positive outcomes in Government funding, with the six MillionPlus moderns in Scotland increasing their Research Excellence Grants by more than £3 million, by far the most significant increases seen across Scottish institutions. I hope to see similarly positive outcomes across England in terms of quality-related research funding. While challenges remain in the research space for modern universities, with the likely loss of association from Horizon Europe and the continued need to push for more equitable research funding, modern universities are going from strength to strength in terms of research excellence. 

My time at MillionPlus to date has reinforced to me that we must keep promoting the strength of the diversity of our higher education sector and the benefits that are brought about by our brilliant modern universities. While there are plenty of challenges on the horizon, it is the breadth of our university sector that will help tackle them.

On Thursday 7 July, HEPI is hosting a webinar to launch its new report on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller access to higher education. Book your free place here.

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