A manifesto for higher education from an academic perspective

Steven Jones has four asks for an incoming government from university academic staff

Steven Jones is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Manchester

Debates about higher education policy have grown disconnected from frontline university staff.

But academics in particular have something unique to bring to the table: first-hand experience of how day-to-day campus activities and cultures have been impacted by a programme of marketisation. This experience shapes what we would ask from a future government.

Fix student finance

We can’t teach students who don’t have enough to live on. Only a Mickey Mouse funding model would leave young people unable to cover the cost of basic essentials like food, rent and heating. Yet the typical student now gets by at barely £2 per week over the destitution line, 27 per cent of universities operate a food bank, and a staggering 54 per cent of our students say their academic performance is suffering as a result.

Some institutions offer hardship funds, but a closer look at the data shows that, in real terms, less help than ever is available. Nothing dims a student’s love of learning like having to work multiple zero-hours jobs. An obvious and relatively inexpensive starting point for policy-makers would be raising the parental income threshold below which students are eligible for the maximum maintenance loan. This has been frozen at £25,000 since 2008, when many of our current undergraduates were still in nappies.

Dial back on metrics

Not everything we do needs to be measured. We all accept that universities should be fully accountable and transparent. However, in recent years the sector has been flooded with dubious “excellence” frameworks and league table rankings. Many of these audits rely on the most tenuous of connections between available data and students’ day-to-day learning practices. For example, continuation and completion rates are assumed to reflect teaching quality, even though when a student drops out it is far more likely to be as a consequence of mental health issues or financial pressures than poor pedagogy.

Similarly, graduate outcome data have been normalised as indicators of success even though they tell us much more about how society values and rewards different professions than what students actually gain from their higher education. These metrics are now routinely used against the sector to justify politically motivated attacks, such as crackdowns on “rip-off” degrees and “low value” institutions.

Courses, departments, and even entire universities face closure on the back of apparent under-performance against methodologically bogus indicators. A return to professional trust would not only give academics more headspace to focus on teaching and research, it would free up institutional resources to better support those core activities.

Fund universities differently

We need bold, new thinking about how universities are funded. It is unfair to expect that academics continue performing at “world-leading” levels while facing perpetual job insecurity. Goodwill has run out. The current funding model has failed in most respects, but many of its proponents continue to dominate the debate, and there’s a worrying sense that a few tweaks here and there can make everything okay again.

Many staff and students now want a fundamental discussion about the extent to which market logic is appropriate for universities. Since the introduction of higher fees, we have watched in dismay as budget holders have squandered money on glassy new buildings and excruciating social media recruitment drives, with little if any positive impact on our students’ learning. Plenty of alternative funding models remain under-explored, from a genuinely progressive graduate tax to levies on graduate employers. But we also need to keep asking why our higher education cannot be reclaimed as a public (and therefore mostly publicly funded) good, as it is in so many other societies.

Change the story on international recruitment

We need to change the ways that higher education – and our international students in particular – are talked about. The recent attempts to end the post-study work visa – dubbed the Deliveroo visa on the mistaken belief that it drives low wage immigration – encapsulates just how hostile some anti-university discourses have become. Not only are the attacks offensive to our hard-working, high-achieving international students, they are also economically illiterate: the current funding model can be made to work only if overseas student fees are set at a level that allows cross-subsidisation of pretty much everything else.

Thanks in part to UK sector leaders finding their voice, the post-study work visa survived, albeit too late for the thousands of potential applicants that had already been put off from applying. A narrative that recognises our international students as human beings with dreams and hopes – and celebrates them accordingly – would make teaching them more enjoyable and over-charging them a little less unethical.

Despite being mismanaged and devalued in recent decades, higher education endures in the public imagination as a force for good, with almost all parents aspiring for their children to gain a degree. According to veracity indices, the proportion of Brits who trust university professors to tell the truth is 76 per cent (compared with 51 per cent for lawyers, 39 per cent for bankers and 10 per cent for government ministers). Any new administration would be well advised to place similar trust in academics, and work alongside them – not against them – to bring about the long-term stability that future generations of students deserve.

5 responses to “A manifesto for higher education from an academic perspective

  1. I would think many in Professional Services would agree with the majority of this.

    The only point I would make is that not all the money spent on ‘shiny new buildings’ is squandered. It is often cheaper to build new than to refurbish buildings that are way past their best. A safe and fit for purpose environment is important so that staff and students can achieve their best. The impact of not doing this can be to the detriment of all concerned (and no I do not work in Estates). Lets not make the mistake of labelling everything under one umbrella as ‘bad’.

    Oh and if those recruitment drives are what gets the students in so they can learn in the first place, then we all have to learn to live with it. Like it or not this is a very competitive business.

  2. This is a magnificent article, and shall be going up on the wall of our medical school. I could not agree more wholeheartedly.

  3. I agree with this wholeheartedly. That not money spent on Big Shiny Buildings is squandered is a tacit admission that most of it has been.

  4. This is a solid if general basis on which to enact desperately needed change in our sector, and it will I hope meet with broad agreement from various “stakeholders”, academics themselves, students, senior management, and government.

    It lines up fairly well, surprisingly, with the ‘education manifesto proposals’ from the main trade union UCU.

    The one thing I would suggest it is missing, in the section on financing the sector, is a sense of the distribution of that financing. Supporting individual students better is obviously a huge win if it happens, but the current model makes the money ‘follow’ the student to a frankly dangerous degree in a ‘wild west’ system where predatory prestige based recruitment practices pack students into the upper echelons of the system. This is most obvious, actually, at universities like the author’s own: Manchester.

    Education is a public good and the entire system needs to be understood less as a ‘market’, which it has never been and likely never will be, and more as an ecosystem. A mix of graduate, employer, and government funding could set the sector on a firmer financial basis yes, but this will need to be done in a way which does not ‘lock in’ the existing stark inequalities we see right now. That is as important to academics working on the front lines of education as everything else the author outlines.

  5. This is good starter for 10, so what’s higher education for now and going forward… it’s things also need to consider – why & what is higher education for going forward, the mindset of how its viewed as an investment in the UK now & going forward for the country’s future, ensure all aspects are joined up covered & co-ordinated by 1 central government for teaching and research etc… I’m sure there’s so much more….

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