I have spent my first few weeks at the helm of University Alliance travelling across the UK to meet our members. I have loved every minute so far, seeing for myself what defines Alliance members.
A sense of vibrancy and energy has hit me the minute I have set foot on our campuses, which are busy, bright, modern spaces at the heart of their communities. From vice chancellors down there is a pervading culture of positivity and purpose.
Alliance universities share a common heritage, identities and personalities, part of the reason they chose to join a mission group. They generate growth, innovation and jobs in partnership with business, industry and entrepreneurs. They build the backbone of the public sector, training the next generation of teachers, nurses and social work professionals. Their role as community leaders and influencers is critical to regional regeneration.
It has been valuable coming into higher education straight from my previous life as director of commercial and communications at UK Sport.
Our job was to enable 1100 outstanding Olympic and Paralympic National Lottery-funded athletes to realise their full potential. The talent, of course, was always there even when we languished at 36th on the medal table at Atlanta in 1996. It was only through building a high-performance system that we could find and nurture that talent, and once we learned to win, to keep winning, being elite without ever being elitist.
Today over 85 per cent of our medalists are state-educated. Sustained investment has enabled gender parity; disabled athletes to succeed; and for LGBTQ athletes to perform and find a platform to speak out. Team GB and ParalympicsGB have been able to succeed, and continue succeeding, through a sustained commitment of investment, which has created a flourishing pipeline of talent from school, through grassroots and community sport, right up to elite level.
Post-18 education can learn lessons from this approach.
I see a close alignment with universities’ and colleges’ shared mission to fight for equality of opportunity and social justice, along with a collective goal to give universal access to great teaching, training and opportunities, regardless of gender, background, age, ethnicity, ability or disability.
We need a coherent, cohesive and integrated system, with long-term investment across early years, schools, colleges, adult education and our universities. And on tertiary education, we need cross-party consensus, a joined-up strategy and commitment on the way forward, not continually chopping and changing policy direction – another reason why the long delay in Augar being published is so frustrating.
Levelling the playing field
We all know life has not been straightforward for universities over the last decade. It is tough cutting through in a fragmented political environment; devolution away from Westminster; and a more competitive, regulated market. The future direction of travel is uncertain and the long-term finances of many institutions are in question for the first time in a generation.
Yet we must accept there is no level playing field between higher and further education, despite us teaching exactly the same generation. I am genuinely surprised by the extent the two sectors allow ourselves to be played off against one another, getting into a bidding war rather than arguing for sustained funding across the board. People, whether doing a college course or university degree, have the same aspirations, ambitions and ability to succeed. That’s why one of my first meetings has been with the Association of Colleges on how we can work closely together in future.
We are dealing with the most volatile political, policy and public environment for decades. We’ve got Brexit with all its short-, medium- and long-term ramifications, while there is no consensus on our future economic or trade relations with the rest of the world. We still have an unbalanced economy weighted towards London and the City. We have a tight public investment environment, despite the rhetoric on ending austerity, with a very uncertain spending review ahead of us.
Living up to our name
All this presents challenges and opportunities for the Alliance. We have built up a solid policy platform, setting out a bold agenda. We’ve got a history of working constructively with policymakers behind the scenes, while advocating, arguing and lobbying hard for our 21 full and programme members. And we run great initiatives, including our Doctoral Training Alliance, which has supported hundreds of PhD scholars since 2015. But we can’t stand still.
I want to get away from the old-fashioned, hierarchical outlook within higher education, where institutions are expected to know their place. It is extraordinary that universities allow themselves to be pigeonholed as “research intensive” or “teaching-led”; pre- or post-92s; ancient or modern: language which only those in the sector understand. This sort of one-upmanship is of no real interest to the public
So the Alliance is reviewing, without preconceptions, how our current members can best organise themselves to fight for the interests of our students; our academics; and our cities, towns and communities – opening up how we operate.
I want to embrace being distinct, diverse institutions bound together by a clear, progressive manifesto.
I want us to take more pride in each other’s successes and pool our collective strengths, when members need support most.
I want to work with a broader set of universities, new providers and colleges to push our agenda, in particular the 70 universities and hundreds more providers that sit outside the existing representative organisations.
And above all I want to build alliances beyond higher education, to campaign on issues because they’re the right priorities for the economy and society and to link the values we espouse with the reality of the UK today.
The best athletes are driven to deliver their very best from those around them. More unites than divides us within higher education and us with further education. Now is the time to come together for the greater good.Team GB and ParalympicsGB only succeed when our the teams and athletes are working together to win medals. We are no different.