Build Back Higher: the right policy mix for skills, institutions and places will drive the recovery

Joe Marshall, James Coe, Lewis Cooper, and Diana Beech consider the policy formulas that could help bring the country back from Covid-19.

Joe Marshall is chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB).


James Coe is Senior Policy Advisor at the University of Liverpool. 


Lewis Cooper is Director, Independent Commission on the College of the Future at the Association of Colleges. 


Diana Beech is chief executive of London Higher. 

Skills for the future

Joe Marshall

The increasing automation and digitisation of the work-place, as well as broad economic shifts in the fourth industrial revolution, are not new. However, the pandemic has catalysed these structural changes to the labour market. To best prepare students entering this uncertain world, collaboration, coordination and innovative thinking is a must.

As we start to unlock our economy, it is time to think of the long-term labour market and the skills students will need to thrive. The lockdown has brought home to businesses the importance of digital skills for all roles as well as the need for employees with strong resilience, communication and time-management skills. Again, these changes were apparent even before the pandemic. Yet policy makers are often narrowly focused on the specific technical skills in demand right now in the labour market.

In 2020, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) conducted interviews with 25 universities on how they work with businesses to provide skills students will need for the future. There were many innovative ways that institutions were developing their students’ employability skills through courses and programmes co-developed with employers. Yet universities were frequently left unclear on whether employers and the government knew what skills were important.

Since the dissolution of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills in 2017, the UK has lacked a cross-cutting national body responsible for labour market intelligence. A joined up system that reviews and provides direction on the country’s future skills needs is a top priority to education providers and employers.

However, there are actions universities can take without waiting for central government. The pandemic has also highlighted the need to think of not just what we teach but how we teach. The need for lifelong learning and the potential of remote teaching should continue to be at the forefront of universities and policymakers minds.

What is consistently clear is that universities are fundamental in ensuring we have the skills we need for future success.

Riding the waves of the job market

James Coe

Going to university is a tacit promise to students that their lives will be better than if they had not attended. This is in terms of their academic abilities, personal growth, and of course their future prosperity. This promise is delivered by universities who provide an education with employment benefits; the state who steer the economic conditions that provide graduate jobs; and employers who remunerate graduates for their skills.

Emerging evidence suggests that there has been little decrease in the overall numbers of graduates in jobs but what will happen to “graduate jobs” is less certain. We do know that a consequence of Covid-19 has been a decline in jobs which traditionally employ young people. Coupled with a contraction of the labour market more generally there is a risk that less experienced graduates could be competing for fewer jobs.

There is still a significant average wage premium for graduates but an important question remains of how our sector can help students navigate these choppy employment waters.

Part of the answer is in our traditional supply side role of skills development. The turbulent and changeable job market will require curricula which build broader skills set, a career support which enables students to articulate every ounce of experience they have gained, and pastoral support for students to feel confident to face these uncertain times. Now should also be the time where, in partnerships with local employers and our public sector partners, we ramp up our own graduate employment schemes.

Equally, we should also not neglect how universities can stimulate the economy more generally. Building back better means building back broader. As we’ve seen with the University of Gloucester there is opportunity to spread prosperity beyond our own campuses. Aligned to this spread now is the moment for ensuring our procurement is supporting local employment. In every case the aim should be to squeeze a pressured resource into where it can have the most social impact.

In an age where there is scepticism about the value of universities now is the opportunity to not only tell people about the value of our work but to show it through the work we can do with our students and our places.

What role for universities and colleges in post-pandemic recovery?

Lewis Cooper

Our post-pandemic recovery demands more than ever a confident and coordinated role for colleges and universities. This will be crucial as we address the jobs crisis, support business recovery, rebuild our communities and drive the urgent transition to a net zero carbon economy. There are three priorities critical to achieving this.

First, we need a whole-systems approach to education and skills. This has to go beyond positive rhetoric – deeper integration is critical to providing a coherent lifelong service to people and a better joined-up offer to employers, both of which are needed now more than ever.

The past 12 months have seen people working together in a range of new ways in responding to the crisis. As colleges reflect on ways of deepening strategic coordination with each other in line with the Skills for Jobs white paper, this must invite reflection on the complementary roles of universities and other providers too, including across provision, articulation, innovation and business support, and areas where shared services can drive up quality and coherence – such as in investment in digital skills and infrastructure.

Second, we need to own and describe the wider role of colleges and universities, as we rebuild our communities, address serious and long-term challenges in public health and wellbeing – including in light of the impacts of the pandemic – and drive the sustainability agenda. Once again, this demands deeper strategic coordination between institutions and across government, which will require significant change – and it means being reflective, honest – and humble – as to the complementary roles we can play together.

And third, funding. We have a compelling case to make for increased investment in education and skills – and all the more compelling if we get the first two points right. But given the extensive demands on the public finances, we’ll have to be better than ever at articulating this together, ahead of the spending review.

This has to include redressing the long-standing underinvestment in colleges in order to ensure a healthy wider system, as well as ensuring sustainable funding for the whole system. And it has to mean ensuring lifelong learning is something people really can afford – a statutory right to lifelong learning should include opening up access to grants and loans to support study flexibly, throughout an individual’s life, and is surely needed now more than ever.

Funding London

Diana Beech

We all know our higher education sector is at its best when it pulls together. Over the past year, we have witnessed universities and colleges across the country united in their efforts to tackle Covid-19 and support the nation through the pandemic.

Yet current government policy proposals to change the way in which teaching funds are distributed, under the guise of “levelling up”, threaten to shatter this display of unity. By promising to reallocate money away from London and away from studies no longer seen as strategically important to the economy, the government is seeking to divide and conquer.

While these proposals, outlined in the OfS consultation on the distribution of capital funding, may be pitched in a way that purports to benefit some institutions – particularly those outside London with strong scientific or health-based offerings – we must be under no illusion about the national losses that will come from knowingly under-funding our capital’s universities and setting a wrecking ball on our pipeline of creative talent.

It is, of course, right to invest in all regions and seek to fill strategic skills gaps, but neither of these ambitions should come at the expense of London’s higher education institutions and our world-leading creative industries. Both generated significant national economic gain prior to the pandemic and should be looked to, as we seek to restart and recover our economy post-Covid.

To build back higher, we need to maintain a “whole sector” approach and actively defend the diversity and opportunity that has fuelled our success to date – not just domestically but around the globe. Staying silent as significant parts of our sector are stripped of vital resources when people and our economy need them the most will help no one and will only open the door to further interventions in the future.

At Wonkfest Digital on 9-10 June we’ll be thinking through how universities can Build Back Higher after the Covid-19 pandemic. Find out more about Wonkfest Digital and get your ticket here

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