Universities should be at the heart of our national debate

Can we expect an unaccustomed and not entirely welcome focus on universities at the coming General Election? Or are we in a position where, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’?

It is a delightful epigram, but not one that those responsible for our major universities would necessarily endorse in the lead up to one of the most uncertain elections in recent history. 

And across a broad range of related issues – fees, immigration, radicalisation, innovation, skills, maybe even bosses’ pay – higher education looks set to feature more prominently in 2015 than in any previous campaign. The problem is that political logic – the framing of initiatives to attract votes – does not necessarily produce commitments that would be suggested by policy logic or managerial logic.

This is not to argue that any one of these three ways of thinking about the future of universities is superior to the others; they are all legitimate, and each come to the fore at different stages in the formulation and implementation of government reforms. Nonetheless, the enhanced attention of politicians breeds at best uncertainty and, at worst, interventions that many of us may view as unwelcome.     

On the other hand, perhaps Wilde was right; maybe we should embrace the newfound salience of universities in the national political discourse. In most large UK cities and towns universities: employ large numbers of local people in often high value and typically sustainable jobs; undertake the research that underpins business innovation; create the professionals who shape civic society; provide the skills that enhance enterprise; and educate the next generation of leaders. We invest in physical regeneration, champion green technology, encourage public debates, provide sport facilities, support cultural programmes and promote mutual understanding. There are few aspects of life that universities do not touch and shape.

Furthermore, we do all these things – and many more – with income largely derived either directly or indirectly from government. Taking this view, it is the relative absence of higher education from previous election campaigns that needs explanation rather than our enhanced presence in this one.

We argue we are one of the most important groups of institutions in the country. Indeed, we have sought to draw attention to our impact through our sector body, within our mission groups, and as individual institutions. Having done so, however, we cannot expect always to set the terms on which the debate turns, in particular in the febrile atmosphere of a closely contested campaign.  

Given the increasing political and public understanding of our influence on society, I am not sure that universities could shuffle back into the electoral shadows even if we wanted to. And this is not without further challenges. Scottish and Welsh universities are already facing the sorts of questions around their governance arrangements and pay regimes which may become common for many of us when English cities receive similar delegation of powers and funding; our local relationships with further education may also come under scrutiny.

Consumer law and student expectations may challenge a number of our established practices. Universities have benefited hugely from the UK’s engagement with the EU, which may now have passed its high watermark.

Can we expect to see more letters to The Times from vice chancellors in the years to come on these and other topics? However we choose to enter the debate – and that may not be the effective way of so doing – we should all prepare ourselves for a period when universities become the subject of regular debateI for one think Oscar was right; this is to be welcomed.  

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