There’s a dance that takes place around a general election in which everyone races to get their “asks” into the parties’ manifestos.
The higher education sector’s demands rarely change: funding for research and teaching, favourable international visa regime, widening participation. This year’s set has a Brexit-y flavour: continued association with European research and mobility programmes in the international space, and support for skills and local economic regeneration in the domestic.
Universities’ asks of politicians are grounded in the (legitimate) premise that well-funded and stable universities will deliver benefits for the whole of society.
But the times are not normal. This is a political climate in which universities’ claim to be of strategic national importance is routinely questioned, and universities are viewed with some suspicion on both sides of an increasingly polarised political spectrum. Universities are the targets of government policy, and less frequently the beneficiaries.
In a general election that was framed as being about Brexit but seems rather to be about who can make the most credible retail offer to a sceptical public, the parties’ manifestos are noticeably light on the need for well-funded, sustainable universities.
As a result the sector appears self-interested in how its asks are articulated, and weak, in that its asks are overlooked by the political parties.
A grand challenge
There could be a way to reframe what universities are asking for, and reposition universities as part of the solution to specific social challenges, building on the “grand challenge” logic of the industrial strategy.
It would mean inverting the premise that universities are generally beneficial for society and should therefore receive special favours, and instead would ask for the policies and funding to be developed to enable universities to increase their potential impact in tackling some of society’s most pressing problems.
The next government, whatever its makeup or creed, is going to be facing a bunch of problems, some long-standing, like growing the supply of adequate housing, and some of more recent genesis – like how on earth we’re going to resource future international trade negotiations on the scale that will be required.
The NHS is going to require, not just more funding, but structural change to meet the needs of an ageing society and a society in which the demand for services such as support for mental health far outstrips supply. Many towns and some cities are in economic freefall, having been gutted by changes to manufacturing and subsequently to the retail and services industries. The machines are coming for our jobs and climate change is coming for all of us.
The answer to these issues and other problems like them isn’t simply “fund universities and by a mysterious alchemy the benefits will diffuse across society.” Though it is, in one sense, true, it’s not nearly tangible enough for politicians who want announceable, eye-catching solutions, yesterday. Nor, arguably, will those benefits materialise rapidly enough in the current way of things to make a meaningful difference to the people who are struggling at the pointy end of some of these issues. It will take actors across the whole of society; including the state/public sector, universities, the third sector and business, working together on solutions – and while government has powerful convening power and the funding to make things happen, there’s no reason to think that it has a monopoly on policy ideas.
Developing policy ideas
At Wonkfest, finding ourselves with a gap in our agenda that was to have been filled by universities minister Chris Skidmore – who, in the way of ministers, had been detained at parliament – we patched together a session in which we crowdsourced ideas for an HE manifesto.
Given that delegates were given about five minutes to come up with proposals, the results were rather mixed – but there were some novel ideas. Like these:
- Incentivise universities to share and link up institutional social infrastructure with the collapsing social infrastructure in towns and cities
- Co-locate student housing and care homes
- Financial incentives for businesses to base their offices in disadvantaged areas – create jobs people want to go back to and places to build apprenticeship schemes
- Compulsory digital literacy education
A number of universities host policy units whose focus is connecting university researchers and their insight with policymakers. Some universities already organise their research portfolio around specific challenges or local needs. The next step could be to develop proposals for new collaborative activity and partnerships focused on specific national policy challenges.
The premise is that universities have some stake in most of society’s significant challenges, whether by doing the research that helps us understand the problem, designing the education that will deliver the skills to fix it, or as institutions located in particular geographies, and as part of a network of particular local relationships, where those problems are felt most acutely.
For example, universities could propose a new institute for international trade, researching and advising on the political, legal, ethical and competency frameworks for trade negotiations and offering accredited training to aspiring trade negotiators within and outside the civil service. Or a new research body (you might call it DARPA-like) with a sole focus on developing and rapidly testing and refining technologies and products to tackle climate change. Or new policies to enable universities to play a bigger role in supporting entrepreneurs and incubating new businesses, especially in left-behind parts of the country.
I’m not claiming these ideas are necessarily any good in themselves, but in their framing they are a bit more likely to land with politicians in general, rather than the handful who take a personal interest in higher education. And, vitally, they position universities less as a problem to be solved through policy, and more as part of the solution.