This article is more than 4 years old

Do universities matter in post-Brexit Britain?

Natalie Day and Chris Husbands pitch their plan to create a new social compact between universities and the public.
This article is more than 4 years old

Chris Husbands is director at Higher Futures and former vice chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University

Natalie Day is Head of Strategy and Policy Insight at Sheffield Hallam 

There have been repeated calls for universities to become a critical resource to their localities.

There have also been calls for Government to help shape more inclusive social change.

In our new report, we consider the importance of partnerships, progression and place in order for the higher education sector to fulfil its civic responsibilities – and to ensure our post-18 education system realises its full potential.

In the firing line

Why does this matter? A Policy Exchange report claims that universities are “out of touch” and have ”lost the trust of the nation” in some critical areas. There is a gap, argue the authors, between how the sector sees itself and how others see the sector.

The news has often seemed unremittingly bad, and it is enumerated in painful detail by the report’s authors – grade inflation, senior pay, governance failures and groupthink. For university leaders, who often believe, and on good evidence, that their teaching is effective, their research impactful and their influence largely for good, all this is difficult to square with their day-to-day experience.

Do universities really look that different, viewed from the outside in comparison to the view from the inside out? In the context of another wave of industrial action, the self-image of universities is taking a series of powerful knocks.

Up the flagpolling

That sense of dislocation between the view from the inside and the view from the outside is reinforced by the UPP Foundation’s polling evidence. Over a third of people have never visited their local university, a figure which rises to four in ten for those from working class backgrounds.

If universities are viewed in their traditional sense as vehicles for teaching and education, these numbers aren’t that surprising. But if universities want to be taken seriously as drivers of opportunity and economic change, as anchor institutions, these numbers matter.

It’s not enough, as any football supporter knows, to base judgements on the enthusiasm shown by enthusiastic partisans. As universities are increasingly asked to focus on their obligations to their local community and geography, these numbers present an important reminder of the scale of the task ahead if universities are to fulfil their more civic missions.

Polar opposites

Perhaps nothing crystallises the difference more sharply than Brexit: university staff and students, and graduates more generally, overwhelmingly supported membership of the European Union.

But the remain cause was utterly, at least for the foreseeable future, vanquished in December’s election. Universities need to accept this reality and far from being passive observers of the divisions exposed through Brexit, must become confident and central players in reshaping a fragmented Britain.

Along with our Sheffield Hallam colleague Lord Kerslake, we have suggested some key recommendations to address this. In Making Universities Matter: how higher education can help to heal a divided Britain, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, we set out a prospectus for the future of universities in a reshaped nation, giving new meaning to the concept of “anchor” institutions in acting as allies of Government to deliver educational and social opportunities.

Air miles

Some universities will still see this debate as tangential, preferring their competition with global peers and increasingly international operation. Some see themselves as a university which happens to be “in” a place rather than “of” a place. We think this is dangerous.

If universities lose their role as local institutions, as proudly established institutions of place, they will lose the affections and loyalties which go with that. The social contract on which all non-profit institutions depend will be frayed.

Our paper challenges the sector, asking universities to take responsibility to work with government and other actors to address social and economic tensions. We build on the work of the Civic University Commission which challenged universities to re-shape their role and responsibility to their communities and suggest that a more civic mission needs to become hardwired into the fabric of institutional cultures and outlooks. We propose that place and civic engagement should be central to higher education and research policy, as well as national agendas more broadly.

Big ideas

We propose three ideas: partnerships, progression, and place. We look to engage universities, nationally and locally in skills agreements with further education institutions to drive future economies.

We propose a “first-in-family allowance”, ensuring the first year of a degree is tuition-free for any student whose parents have not obtained a tertiary education, and we look to embed a co-funded collaborative education outreach programme with a focus on deprived communities.

We propose a redirection of Industrial Strategy funds to foster regional innovation, making the challenge of tackling the UK’s debilitating productivity divide an explicit purpose of research and innovation funding.

Institutions which profess to be drivers of opportunity cannot thrive in a regionally unequal society. We offer recommendations to government and to universities, but mostly we propose a much more confident and collaborative relationship in order to help shape a radically different Britain.

Universities believe they matter. We need to prove that and fundamentally make universities matter more to more people for more things.

One response to “Do universities matter in post-Brexit Britain?

  1. Thanks both. A very interesting policy report which I have speed read (RS training!). I agree with just about everything in it, my only concern is how the current Government will respond to any recommendations. Almost as if anything too sensible gets knocked out of court!

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