For universities, persuading government post-Covid-19 will mean persuading voters

Rachel Wolf argues that government priorities post-Covid-19 are increasingly clear, and universities have a chance to influence if they respond now to the changing political landscape

I’ve seen three Downing street machines up (relatively) close, and in many ways, this should be the most auspicious for higher education.

Three senior members of the policy unit worked in a university just before their appointment. The commitment to R&D is deep and abiding: despite being a long way from the top three priorities for British swing voters, research got a massive financial uplift in the manifesto. There are a few more science graduates and statisticians around than there used to be, including in the departments (though, it must be said, also quite a few new PPE and history graduates).

This comes right from the top. I first worked for Boris Johnson when he was shadow higher education minister (I’d say before he was famous, but he was always famous) and he was always deeply committed to universities, a proponent of their expansion, and had a belief in the importance of learning for its own sake as well as for economic and social ends.

But it’s also true that a lot of people in and around the government are sceptical about some things that currently happen in the sector. You’re familiar with these and I’d put them in three broad buckets:

1. Economic and social: does all degree provision delivers value for money for the taxpayer, does all research is contributing to the public good, do institutions reflect and support their local communities?
2. Cultural issues: from free speech to boycotts to a view among some on the right that the government is paying for ever-more academics that loathe them and attack on principle.
3. Academic excellence questions: from grade inflation and curriculum changes.

It may seem absurd to mention these when universities are in the midst of an existential crisis with foreign students dropping precipitously, examinations up in the air, and income declining. But there is a risk that – across every sector – the need to respond to Corona means institutions are ill-prepared for other reforms. Just as in the environment, policymakers are thinking about a “green recovery”, in education people are thinking about a “skills recovery”. And that means they will want to address the underlying problems they already thought existed – in a political environment that has become much more instinctively interventionist.

What is that likely to mean? Most obviously, and most dominantly, it’s going to be the continued push to shift from a three year, full-time degree model and the shift of resources into further education (which doesn’t necessarily mean FE colleges: it could equally mean universities offering much more Level 4 and 5 provision) while, post-pandemic, there is probably less money in total to go around).

Most conservatives, most of the time, think that we don’t have a good enough vocational and technical system, and we don’t care enough about it. The public agree. That is one reason why Augar. Is. Not. Dead.

This issue comes up in focus groups all the time – particularly of the new Conservative voters (the lower middle class and working class voters in towns across England and Wales). People like universities, they do see the value of them, they want their kids to go to them. But they still think more people need to do apprenticeships instead. This will irritate many readers of this blog, but here’s the point. After twenty years of higher education reform, you haven’t persuaded the people the Conservative party needs to listen to. And this is a big problem.

Occasionally, the reaction of HEIs in listening to this criticism is to explain – with a greater or lesser degree of patience – why the public are idiots (just as they do on Brexit). I’m sure the readers of this blog will recognise why this is a wholly ineffective approach.

The concern about FE isn’t just based on sentimental nostalgia but on some clear facts: despite the welcome growth in HE, the total number of people involved in post-18 education has fallen. There has been a collapse in part-time learning (although these have been driven pretty clearly by changes in government levers). And it’s a fact that, if you haven’t achieved a Level 3 qualification by age 19, your chances of progressing further are vanishingly small. The people in government who care about these things are well aware of these figures.

Second, the push for the civic agenda, with increasingly clear views on what “good” looks like. When we ran the Civic University Commission for the UPP Foundation, I was really pleased to see so many institutions sign up to the renewed civic agenda. Although Westminster as a whole hasn’t been particularly place-focussed for the last decade or so, that’s definitely now changing – and again, the shifting electoral base and geography of the new Conservative MPs will only accelerate this. Levelling up isn’t a slogan. It reflects a deep belief among MPs and voters that we need to improve the economic and social outcomes in a lot of the country, many of which have universities in or near them

The risk for universities is that they think a basket of local activity will be sufficient when actually the government will have an extremely clear view of what kind of activity they want to see. I would expect this to be most focused on: how do you raise local attainment (as well as aspiration); how do you change the outcomes of adult learners; and how do you translate research into practical benefits for communities. Readers will point out, correctly, that government levers need to change to allow this to happen. I think they will.

At the heart of this, my main piece of advice would be to listen to the people the government is listening to: voters. As we emerge, haltingly, from the pandemic, the desire to tangibly help and meet the priorities of working-class voters in “levelling up” areas is going to be more important than ever.

Universities’ own future will depend on whether they’re seen as a way of achieving that aim.

On Monday 8 June, Public First and Wonkhe are running an event about how universities can influence during and after the Covid crisis

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