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Public attitudes to higher education – what does the evidence tell us?

  • 30 March 2023
  • By Richard Brabner and Nick Hillman
  • Today’s HEPI blog is in the form of the Foreword to the recent HEPI / UPP Foundation report on Public Attitudes to Higher Education (February 2023). The Foreword was jointly written by Richard Brabner, the Director of the UPP Foundation, and Nick Hillman, the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
  • This morning, HEPI and the UPP Foundation will be hosting a HYBRID event to discuss the findings, with Mark Corver, Mo Hussein, Sunday Blake, Jonathan Simons and Mary Stuart. Book a place here.

There is a sense at home and abroad that the UK is going in the wrong direction. Public services are struggling, various sectors – including universities – are prone to strikes amid the worst industrial relations for nearly half a century, and political turmoil has led people to question whether society is quite as stable as we previously hoped. In the aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic, progress seems uncertain. The pressing need to tackle global challenges, like climate change and war in Europe, also means the current malaise feels somehow different to what has come before. 

Whether the problems are temporary or systemic, the answers to them must lie – in part – in UK universities, which are not only educating the next generation of employees but also pushing at the boundaries of knowledge on how to better the world. So with the caveat that our polling was conducted in August 2022, it is pleasing to see the high levels of support for UK higher education institutions in the second wave of the UPP Foundation / HEPI Public Attitudes to Higher Education Survey, which has been overseen by Public First. In particular, it is notable that support for universities among voters in England runs higher than support for universities among voters in the United States.

However, there remains, as in 2021, some areas of concern where public perceptions are either moving in the wrong direction or continue to be problematic. Fewer people think universities are important to the UK economy than last year; and one-in-five people think ‘a university degree is a waste of time’. We also find that 57% of the public say that freedom of speech at English universities is under threat.

All of these issues have different contexts and require different approaches. Some need concerted action to tackle them, whereas for others it is about how the sector engages with the outside world. But broadly speaking the polling shows there will need to be a sustained advocacy job done either side of the next general election if more people are to understand the true value of higher education.

This year we asked questions about cost of living. We think there are lessons for both the Government and the higher education sector. Most people fear that the cost-of-living crisis will deter people from enrolling in higher education and a majority want to see student maintenance grants return. While polling and behaviour are often at odds, we certainly agree that policy needs to fit current circumstances, and the real concern is not just access, but student continuation. The best way to help hard-pressed students is to link the existing maintenance support package to a more accurate measure of inflation so that it maintains its value.

Yet if universities and students’ unions want to understand why the Government hasn’t done this, they should look at our report.Sadly, few people prioritise students in the battle for public support when they are pitted against other groups. This probably explains why Westminster governments of more than one colour have opted to shift the costs of higher education onto the main beneficiaries – graduates – and away from taxpayers. 

In the short-term it is incumbent on all of us to press the case for student maintenance and outline the consequences of inaction. Over the longer-term we need to build a better evidence base on the true costs of being a student of the sort that used to be regularly provided by the Student Income and Expenditure Survey.

Finally, one of the most dispiriting findings this time around, as last time, is how many people have only very rarely, or never, knowingly visited (or even apparently engaged passively with) a university. For example, over half of those from the lowest social grade (DE) have never visited a university, and 62% of DE respondents reported no interactions at all with a university in the previous year. Given the importance higher education institutions play in England’s national and civic life and their extensive work with businesses, charities and other educational institutions, it is clear universities need to do more to welcome people on to campus and also to make their existing support for museums, theatres, schools, libraries and other civic organisations – not to mention employers and the healthcare sector – much more visible. That way, we can hopefully turn a negative finding into a more positive one in future iterations of this important annual survey.

After all, there are sound reasons why it is sometimes said that the difference between a regular city and a great city is the presence of a university.

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