This blog has been kindly written by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher, the representative body for more than 40 universities and higher education colleges across the capital. Diana was previously Policy Adviser to three successive Universities Ministers and is currently Vice-Chair of the Board of Governors at the University of Worcester. She writes here in a personal capacity, and you can follow Diana on Twitter @dianajbeech.
Shortly after stepping down as adviser to three former Universities Ministers, I penned a HEPI blog listing 10 crucial things that I felt any new Minister for Universities should know.
Two and a half years later, on re-reading that blog, I am struck by how much has changed, yet also how little has changed, given that each and every one of the 10 points I raised are still highly relevant today despite us being another two UK Prime Ministers on.
Moreover, with the Universities brief now at real risk of being watered down under a wider post-16 departmental remit for ‘Skills’, I have found myself pondering afresh what sector advocates such as myself can be doing to ensure that the complexities of the higher education brief are fully appreciated by the latest cohort of Ministers in the Department for Education.
Having had five Education Secretaries this year alone, together with three successive Ministers with responsibility for higher education, I am sure that by now every single university leader in England has a standard congratulatory letter template saved on their hard drive, containing a well-honed pitch about their institution and what it is that makes it worth a ministerial visit.
While it can be demoralising to have to re-send such a letter to yet another new ministerial line-up, it is more important than ever that we do so – both to underscore our sector’s importance to the wider Skills agenda and to illustrate that some of the best technical and vocational, skills-based education is already being offered by or in partnership with many of the country’s world-leading higher education institutions whose role must not be diminished in the Government’s understanding of the delivery of key practical skills.
Plus, with a General Election on the cards in roughly two years’ time, if not sooner, we need to be doing much more than just waiting for Ministers to get through their virtual mailbags to learn about what our sector has to offer. Instead, we should be proactively finding ways to show Ministers and our local MPs on both sides of the House the 21st century face of UK higher education.
At the start of this month, while being fortunate enough to preside over my first graduation ceremonies at the University of Worcester in my role as Vice-Chair of the Board, I had an epiphany moment. As I sat on the stage surrounded by the grandeur of Worcester Cathedral facing the hundreds of beaming faces looking back at me – both of the graduands themselves and their proud friends and families – I was struck by three overarching observations.
First, the faces looking back at me were far from those who we might have associated with a university education even as recently as the start of this century. By far the majority of those faces were female; many were from Global Majority ethnic backgrounds, belonging to different faith traditions and none; and a large proportion of them had clearly embarked on their studies later in their lives and careers: a living testimony to the lifelong function of higher education and the continued need to widen participation to traditionally under-represented groups.
Secondly, the subjects themselves in which the students were graduating were not those most commonly associated with traditional academic study, but exactly those areas of skills that are needed to power our public services and make for a healthy and well-functioning society – with graduates from departments from both the School of Allied Health and Community and the School of Education: disciplines that are integral to human flourishing and success.
Thirdly, the types of qualifications being awarded to the graduates were not all conventional Bachelors, Masters and PhDs. In fact, in just the two ceremonies over which I presided, I saw graduates collect Foundation Degrees in practical and applied subjects such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Counselling; Certificates of Higher Education in National Childbirth Trust (NCT) Perinatal Education and Practice; and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education: Further Education, to name but a few.
While higher education may not always be a core Government priority, just one afternoon’s graduation ceremonies were enough to show me that our universities and higher education colleges are unequivocally at the core of our society – nurturing those who will go on to nurture others in our schools, colleges, hospitals and businesses. That’s why I wish every Minister, constituency MP, local councillor, official and adviser could see what I saw: to see with their own eyes the difference higher education is making not just to the lives of individuals and their families but also to vastly different sectors of our society and economy.
Our graduation ceremonies across the UK are and always have been perfect showcases to which to invite Ministers, MPs and councillors, so that they can appreciate at first-hand the skills that universities are developing, the qualifications students are earning and the ability of future generations of graduates to go on and serve the country skillfully and successfully.
Graduation ceremonies need not take place behind closed doors – especially those taking place in large public buildings such as cathedrals and arenas. When we celebrate our students’ successes, we should make sure that those who could benefit from seeing them are invited to the occasion, too – to enable them to meet our inspirational graduates and their families and gather the stories and anecdotes to go on to advocate for us locally, nationally or around the globe.
Graduations are not just celebrations of learning for universities and their students, but they can also be learning opportunities for Government and officials as well. Inviting them to share in the successes of our graduates in this way could well be key to our sector’s own recognition in any future government skills agenda and, at the very least, send a clear signal from our sector that we are committed to building a shared future for our students, cities and country at large.