Hear hear: what are MPs’ perceptions of universities?

Central Lobby. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The parliamentary agenda in 2017 will be dominated by navigating the UK’s exit from the EU, refocusing domestic policy around an Industrial Strategy ‘fit for a global Britain’, and designing a new immigration system that satisfied voters concerns while ‘UK Plc’ fights to maintain its global links in a brave new world of bilateral free trade agreements.

From EU-funded research to local business links through programmes such as degree apprenticeships, to the global ‘soft power’ of their international students, universities are well placed to inform and shape many of the debates that are, and will be, going on in parliament. However, they are only one of a varied and growing set of interest groups that are fighting for MPs attention.

MPs are often great champions – as well as chief examiners – of the work and value of UK universities. Universities must operate a careful balancing act between proactively engaging with MPs on the issues of most importance us, and reacting to the issues that MPs already want to hear about. In a perfect world, these two things coincide. But the level of receptiveness to universities’ lobbying is of course influenced by MPs general perceptions of the sector.

So, what do MPs think about universities? Universities UK (UUK) commissioned ComRes in both 2015 and 2016 to poll MPs on their perceptions of universities, with some interesting results to consider.

What are we good at?

When polled in 2015 following the general election, a relatively fresh intake of MPs agreed that UK universities performed well at enhancing the reputation of the UK internationally (73%) and ‘contributing to national productivity and economic growth’ (62%). MPs said they would most welcome hearing from universities about their engagement with businesses and enterprise (38%), a third (33%) wanted to hear about their activity on higher level skills and the employability of graduates, followed by research and innovation (30%) and activities relating to widening participation and improving social mobility (30%).

That was in 2015 – but has the outcome of the EU referendum changed these priorities? Our 2016 poll following the EU referendum showed that MPs wanted to hear most about the support that universities needed to ensure that they thrive post-Brexit. The referendum result clearly prompted an interest from MPs in understanding more about the likely impact of Brexit on universities, but also the role that universities play in global engagement, and might be required to play in a post-Brexit Britain. Engagement with business and enterprise was thus bumped to second place in the issues that MPs want to hear about, while in at third place was the ‘value and benefits that international students bring to the UK economically, socially and diplomatically’. Over a quarter of MPs noted that they would welcome university engagement with them on widening participation and social mobility.

It was still agreed among those MPs polled in 2016 that enhancing the international reputation of the UK and contributing to productivity and growth were what universities were best at. However, the changing political and global context, and universities’ visibility during the referendum campaign was perhaps reflected in the 2016 poll with almost half of MPs polled saying that UK universities performed well in demonstrating the value of internationalisation, including the importance of international staff and students in the economy.

 What MPs think of universitiesWhat universities think of themselves
Enhancing the reputation of the UK internationally+68+84
Contributing the national productivity and economic growth+53+74
Demonstrating the value of internationalism+40+24
Demonstrating the value of university-led research+25+5
Demonstrating the value of a university education to individuals and society+27+2
Producing graduates with the skills the country needs+24+52
Using their funding efficiently+18+34
Widening participation and improving social mobility+19+38
Tackling violence against women, harassment, and hate crime+2+28
Tackling extremism on campus-25+44
How well, or otherwise, do you think UK universities perform on each of the following?

Differences among political parties

While there was broad consensus on what universities performed well at and what MPs wanted to hear about, there were some important differences between MPs of political parties. Labour MPs were more likely than Conservatives to say that universities were good at producing graduates with the skills the country needs. There was a larger recognition among Labour and SNP MPs for universities’ role in contributing to national productivity and economic growth while Conservative MPs were more likely than Labour to say that universities performed well at widening participation and improving social mobility.

On the whole, Labour MPs have a more positive view of universities than Conservative MPs.

 Conservative MPsLabour MPs
Enhancing the reputation of the UK internationally66%81%
Contributing the national productivity and economic growth49%73%
Producing graduates with the skills the country needs24%42%
Demonstrating the value of a university education to individuals and society34%44%
Using their funding efficiently28%37%
Tackling extremism on campus8%25%
How well, or otherwise, do you think UK universities perform on each of the following?

Room for improvement

For a fully self-reflective exercise for the sector, we also need to take a closer look at where MPs think universities could be doing better regarding their engagement. Only 15% of those MPs surveyed in 2016 thought that UK universities perform well on tackling extremism on campus while 19% thought that they performed well on tackling violence against women and hate crime. Only a third of the surveyed MPs think that universities use their funding efficiently. So, while the sector may be able to point to work addressing these issues, such the UUK Taskforce on violence against women and hate crime, and HEFCE’s recent report concluding that institutions are making strong progress on combatting extremism, we may need to reconsider how we make this clear to MPs.

We know that tackling violence against women and hate crime are issues that MPs do not think that universities perform well at. However, only 6% of those MPs polled said that this is the issue that they would most want to hear from universities about. This perhaps shows that negative perceptions can be reinforced by an MP’s lack of willingness to engage with universities and hear from us on these topics. There are perhaps some issues where some MPs may simply choose to be critical of universities, rather than look for signs of constructive progress.

So, there are clearly opportunities for universities to influence parliamentarians on some of the most politically charged issues of the day, such as Brexit, immigration and the UK’s place in global relations. While the key to unlocking the doors of Westminster invariably lies with picking the issues that MPs want to hear about, this data suggests we should keep challenging their preconceptions, and seek conversations on some of the more sensitive issues in which we hard at work to address.


ComRes interviewed 130 MPs online and by self-completion paper questionnaires between 4th October and 18th November 2016. Data were weighted to be party, region and length of service. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. 

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