This blog was kindly contributed by Susanna Kalitowski, Head of Policy at University Alliance.
After a sweltering summer that ended abruptly with a new Prime Minister and the death of a monarch, we find ourselves in uncharted territory. With a recession looming and millions on the brink of poverty due to rocketing energy costs, the new PM has made it clear her overarching priority will be to increase productivity and growth. Amid this crisis, higher education is unlikely to be at the forefront of ministers’ minds, despite its surprising prominence in the leadership campaign. ‘The Treasury is worried about a lot of things … but it’s not particularly worried about you’, UUK’s new Chief Executive, Vivienne Stern, told the nation’s Vice Chancellors in her inaugural address.
Higher education emerged relatively unscathed from the austerity years, thanks to the removal of restrictions on places (except for medical and dental degrees) and the trebling of tuition fees. These changes took place when other parts of the public sector had their budgets slashed. However, rampant inflation, energy prices and the tuition fee freeze mean that universities – and their staff and students – are unlikely to be so lucky this time around. UUK’s calls for an increase in hardship funding and maintenance support are extremely timely.
When most people think of universities, they tend to focus on their role in educating students and awarding degrees, and politicians are no different. However, this narrow conception of higher education leads to lost opportunities: universities do so much more than this. During the pandemic, universities developed lifesaving vaccines and treatments, deployed staff and students to the front lines and manufactured personal protective equipment and hand sanitiser, among other things. They have an equally vital part to play in helping us out of the current crisis by stimulating economic growth.
University Alliance’s Vision for Growth highlights the role of professional and technical universities in driving the economic recovery. We outline six actions that we believe will deliver growth and prosperity across the UK in the short and medium term. These must be underpinned by a long-term plan for sustainably funding and growing higher education capacity in the UK to meet demand from employers, learners, and our international partners.
Filling the high-level skills gap
There is increasing evidence that the demand for graduates worldwide is only going to rise. Businesses are calling for more high-level technical skills and nine in ten workers will need some form of retraining by 2030. Steps need to be taken now to capitalise on the power of universities to meet this demand. UA has been calling for this transformation for some time, and we are a strong supporter of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. The UA LLE blueprint describes what we believe needs to happen to make it a reality.
Alliance universities were among the first to offer higher and degree apprenticeships, which have become a national success story. However, they are bureaucratic and costly to deliver. Much more can be done to incentivise universities and employers – particularly small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – to expand this innovative provision and get highly skilled people straight into much-needed jobs.
A thriving economy needs thriving public services. With significant shortages across the public sector, particularly in nursing and teaching, professional and technical universities could be better utilised by government to fill these gaps. Alliance universities train 35 per cent of all nursing students in England and a sizeable proportion of professionals across the health service, as well as social workers and teachers. They could play a much more significant role in long-term healthcare workforce planning if they were consulted with in a more strategic way by government and the NHS and had a seat at the table at key decision-making bodies, for example the Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) of the newly created Integrated Care Systems (ICSs).
Delivering regional growth and prosperity
Alliance universities deliver research that is making a practical difference to people every day and act as hubs of research and innovation activity in their regions. They are expert at leveraging public and private sector investment to create the right conditions for new talent, products, services and discoveries to flourish. Alliance universities focus particularly on supporting the creation, growth, and development of local SMEs, providing a range of bespoke support services. If small businesses cannot grow, neither can the UK economy. The upward trajectory to 2.4% of GDP and multi-year budgets for research and development (R&D) funding are essential to the benefits of research for communities. Government should recommit to increasing R&D investment outside the Greater South-East by 2030 and urgently review how research and innovation can be further integrated into regional economic development.
We hope the Government is successful in securing UK association to Horizon Europe and that all avenues to this outcome are exhausted. Meanwhile, innovation support should be a key part of plans for Horizon alternatives and international R&D collaboration, including removing barriers to SMEs participating in collaborative projects; prioritising schemes for doctoral training that increase porosity between academia and industry; and growing international university-business networks to attract more investment to the UK.
Turbo-boosting the UK’s global ambitions
Britain’s higher education sector is one of the few that can genuinely claim to be world leading. It is the second largest exporter of education with Alliance universities among some of the largest providers of transnational education (TNE). Britain’s second place position in the Global Soft Power Index 2022 owes a great deal to the strength of its higher education sector.
As key competitors raise their global ambitions, the UK cannot afford to be complacent. Maintaining its competitive advantage and meeting the Government’s twin aims of increasing education exports and international students will require proactive and sustained support and joined-up policymaking from government. Too often, regulatory approaches by the Office for Students, for example, are designed without the international context in mind. This is an especially significant barrier for Transnational Education as a UK export product.
As new ministers assume their posts, they inherit a higher education sector that is world leading but faces significant challenges. With the right policies and support in place, professional and technical universities can go further to support the country’s economic recovery.