This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher – the representative body for more than forty universities and higher education colleges across London. It is a summary of remarks presented at Bloomsbury Institute London’s ‘Taking Shape: Teaching and Learning Conference’ on 13 July 2022. You can follow Diana on Twitter @dianajbeech.
As the UK finds itself in the midst of a leadership contest to elect the new leader of the Conservative Party and, indeed, our next Prime Minister, it is timely to look at the topic of bringing down barriers and what the higher education sector, in particular, can do to reset its relationship with the wider world.
While it is still too early to tell whether a new Prime Minister will represent continuity or change for both the higher education and science policy agendas, the next few weeks and months will likely present the best opportunity we have had as a sector over recent years to make the case for the importance of universities to our nation and bring down barriers with different stakeholder groups. To this end, I suggest that higher education leaders would be wise to focus their attention this summer on the following four areas
1. Bringing down barriers with policymakers
Firstly, the impromptu Government reset that is now in train should be embraced by universities and higher education colleges as a means of resetting their own standing with policymakers. Whether you believe this Government has been gradually encroaching on institutional autonomy or not, Ministers in the Department for Education have certainly not been shy to set out their expectations for higher education institutions or to stoke the fires of the ‘culture wars’ via the Free Speech Bill or questioning the quality of today’s graduates. As a result, England’s higher education sector has almost been forced to put up a wall of defence to shield it against increasing threats – from defamation on social media (as exemplified here) through to sinister warnings of ‘boots on the ground’ interventions.
Although we cannot be certain that a new Prime Minister and Cabinet will take a more favourable view of higher education in the future, now is the time to start bringing down this wall of defence and actively showing policymakers the potential of our sector to boost skills, jobs, science, innovation and regional growth. Just as we court political candidates in the run up to General Elections to ensure universities are on their radar should they get elected, we too must invest time emphasising the benefits of our sector to existing MPs – for there may be many new faces in Government from early September when the new Prime Minister picks their ministerial team, and we should be using the weeks ahead to ensure that they enter office with a good understanding of all that universities do
2. Bringing down barriers within our localities
Secondly, amidst so much political upheaval and concern over the rising cost of living, universities and colleges would be well-advised to double-down on their role as ‘anchors’ in their local places and provide local communities with a much-needed sense of stability and security. While the civic university agenda may have been around for a few years now, there is still much work to be done across the country to get universities recognised as key players in community-building activities – be it by boosting business growth, supporting public services or driving high-street regeneration. To build this bottom-up trust in local communities, higher education institutions need to be transparent about what they do, and that is why initiatives such as The London Higher Civic Map are helping to bring down barriers for local people and show them the myriad benefits that their local universities are bringing to their lives.
3. Bringing down barriers within our own communities
Thirdly, as well as bringing down external barriers, universities and colleges should also be working hard to bring down barriers for students and staff within their own communities. For students, this means focussing on successful participation and graduate outcomes, as well as access, while for staff it means creating clear career pathways and structures so that everyone can achieve their full potential. At London Higher, like our members, we have made the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) agenda a key priority and are committed to rolling out our successful Pan-London Global Majority Mentoring Programme across our entire membership next academic year, to ensure that more academic and professional service staff from ‘Global Majority’ backgrounds can get the support they need to be the leaders of tomorrow.
4. Bringing down barriers with future generations
Fourthly and finally, while it is tempting to get caught up in the short-termism of today’s politics and policies, higher education institutions are ultimately in the business of shaping futures and need to be bringing down barriers to ensure they can meet the needs and expectations of the next generation. To do this, certain agendas need to be prioritised – not least the ‘Green’ agenda, which will ensure our higher education institutions become places which bring their communities together sustainably for the good of the world around us.
Since leaving office, former Universities and Science Minister Chris Skidmore has become a clear advocate of a Net Zero future and has called on higher education institutions to embrace ‘eco-friendly policies in all aspects of university life’ – from sustainable student living to low-carbon campuses. Again, at London Higher, we have been doing our bit in conjunction with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to help bring down barriers to higher education institutions embarking on this journey through ‘The Circular Food Sprint for London Higher Education’. The initiative is intended to tackle food waste on the capital’s campuses and increase ethical food procurement, and we hope it will be the first of many projects to help our members on the road to Net Zero.
For the higher education sector to flourish in the future, then, our universities and colleges need to move forwards together with the multiple communities around them. Only by bringing down the different barriers will higher education institutions be able to best reach out to those with whom they need to connect.