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What keeps academic leaders and funders awake at night?

  • 12 April 2024
  • In March, HEPI, with support from leading academic publishers Elsevier, hosted a roundtable dinner on research about the priorities of vice-chancellors and funding body heads around the world.
  • This blog considers some of the themes that emerged from the discussion.

What keeps global academic leaders and funders awake at night? A recent report from publishers Elsevier tried to find out. Based on interviews with 115 institutional leaders undertaken in partnership with the market research company Ipsos, it found the main worries were securing funding, maintaining educational and research excellence, demonstrating impact on society, health and the environment, attracting and retaining talented staff and achieving social equity. It found that all these were expected to get more difficult.

It also identified looming future challenges, particularly around AI and climate change, often finding significant gaps between leaders’ priorities and how far they felt prepared to meet them.

Responding to the report, participants at a roundtable dinner, hosted by HEPI with Elsevier, agreed that the problems identified in the research resonated with their own experiences. But they also highlighted reasons to be cheerful and possible ways of confronting the challenges they faced.

The dinner, which included vice-chancellors, senior academics and leaders of funding and other sector organisations from across the UK, was held under Chatham House rules, by which speakers express views on the understanding they will be unattributed.

Problem areas

All agreed that higher education in the UK faced problems, particularly around the sustainability of funding for research and research infrastructure, and around attracting and retaining talent.

Recent changes to visa rules and international students’ right to bring over dependents have seen applications from international students fall, and have also affected staff recruitment. 

One speaker said:

It is increasingly difficult in the UK to attract talent from outside, not just because of visas but because our salaries are not attractive internationally.

If we really want to be a science superpower, something has to change.

Participants in the roundtable felt there had been a failure to convey to politicians and the public the value of what universities do – perhaps, it was suggested, because they were too often speaking among themselves rather than considering outside audiences.

Many were also worried that universities had not engaged adequately with potentially transformative technologies, such as AI. The sector has long been expecting technology to bring major change, one noted, perhaps this time it would turn out to be true.

It was suggested that higher education could look very different in 10 or 20 years, with students needing a far higher level of critical thinking skills and different kinds of assessment and that universities would need to be prepared.

One speaker noted differences identified in the Elsevier research between the weight given to university rankings by respondents from different parts of the world. While in the United States and Europe, rankings are given relatively little importance, in Asia they are considered key, which means they have to be taken seriously by everyone. It was suggested that this was an example of how universities were affected by their role as big businesses and that this role could lead to risk aversion.

Others were concerned that university leaders paid too little attention to the talent pipeline and the knock-on effects that failures here could have on research.

High turnover among higher education leaders has also proved destabilising, it was felt, although it was pointed out that in the UK this had recently been true of political leadership too.

Reasons to be cheerful

On the upside, participants in the roundtable had been cheered to learn that their overseas equivalents seemed to be experiencing many of the same problems they were.

And they agreed that  the UK higher education sector had more agency than many of its equivalents elsewhere in the world.

One speaker said that if this really was a particularly low point for higher education institutions, that could be a point of opportunity, while another suggested that it may not be that much of a low point after all. Look back at media coverage from the 1970s and tales of the sector’s woes were remarkably similar.

Some looked for possible signs of hope from a change of government. While no-one expected more money for the sector if Labour came to power, they did expect a change of “mood music” and at least that some of the pressure from government on universities would be eased.

When it came to AI, while everyone recognised that it could prove disruptive, it was also seen as offering numerous potential ways of increasing universities’ productivity.

Finding solutions

As for what the UK higher education sector could do to address some of the challenges identified in the research, there was a suggestion that ‘going on’ about poor financial sustainability could be counter-productive, particularly as more money was unlikely to be forthcoming.

Rather than asking for a specific spending target, such as 3 per cent of GDP being spent on R&D, universities should talk about what they wanted to achieve and how further investment would help them to do that. 

A participant noted that complaining about problems could encourage the government to come in and try to fix them, when what universities really wanted was to be left alone—although one speaker suggested that saying so would be toxic “because governments are elected to change things”.

Many agreed that it would be important to construct a narrative that showed how much universities contribute to the needs of politicians and particular government priorities, such as growing the economy and supporting the health service, ensuring that this narrative was about what higher education institutions could do for the country rather than what the country could do for them.

A return to having a single government department responsible for higher education and research would help, argued one participant, who suggested the idea that education and research were separate was “dangerous” for the UK.

It was also suggested that more open discussion was needed about how teaching, research and other costs were distributed, to help improve understanding of universities’ business model.

Some participants at the roundtable felt that many politicians and members of the public already appreciate what universities do, they just need to be told about it more often. Others felt that while the sector certainly needs to improve communication, it also needs to act differently.

The feeling was that if universities want the government to believe they are institutions with agency they need to demonstrate it.

They also needed to work together, identifying common issues and responses and drawing on international perspectives. That was why participants in the roundtable agreed that research such as the report under discussion was more than simply “therapy” helping them realise that they were not alone in the issues they faced. By offering an insight into common problems, it could also help them to find common solutions.

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