Modern universities have had a torrid few months, with a political and media onslaught over the level of tuition fees, vice chancellors’ pay, graduate outcomes and most recently the call for post-1992 universities to revert to being polytechnics.
Much of this has come under the banner of “value for money”, in order to achieve a “good deal” for students and taxpayers. Even among architects of our expanded and diversified higher education system, there is a view that newer universities have cynically taken advantage of a drive towards expanding participation and the growth of a market in HE, and must now be reined in with an eye to the bottom line.
My perspective is informed by my role heading up an institution focused on ensuring everyone has the means to fulfil their creative potential, and as the author of the government’s review of Modern Working Practices I have been looking at how to create better jobs in the UK with scope for self-fulfilment and development. To me the way ahead is clear: modern universities must forge connections of every possible kind to their local environment, to business and other educational institutions, to maximise the public good they do. Meanwhile, as policymakers and commentators, it is vital that we do not measure universities’ value only in terms of academic achievement and graduate salaries, and consider instead all the wider impact universities can and should have.
Modern universities already do more towards increasing social mobility and boosting productivity and skills than they are given credit for. At their best, they are pillars of their community supporting local needs, and reach out globally through their students and partner institutions.
Universities are intricately connected with their local areas: according to Universities UK, more than 725,000 students (31% of all those in HE) volunteer locally, and more than 100 university museums are open to the public, attracting almost 4 million visitors a year. I am myself chair of a campus-based theatre which provides high quality, innovative drama to local people. Modern universities such as Middlesex University offer free legal advice centres, community kitchens providing hot food and clothing to homeless people, NHS pop-up events and sports coaching sessions in local primary schools. They second staff to local planning bodies and help shape public policy. How many local jobs are supported by modern universities and how much investment comes through procurement from local suppliers? How much more can they enrich their communities if they continue to grow and diversify their intake?
Modern universities build connections with local schools, aided by student ambassadors. They have important connections to other educational institutions such as FE colleges. These links support the development of progression pathways for learners – accessing a higher education qualification through an apprenticeship, a foundation year or a Higher National Certificate, for example – helping them understand the opportunities available to them and to move through different types of learning at different points in their lives on the way to fulfilling their potential. Partnerships with international institutions enable more progression pathways to be offered.
Modern universities have ever-closer connections with the world of work – from specialist facilities such as Southampton Solent University’s shiphandling centre at Timsbury Lake, the centre for tourism excellence at Edinburgh Napier, or the UK’s first installation of the Festo Didactic factory of the future at Middlesex, to universities offering work-based training as part of the multi-billion pound UK training industry. Modern universities offer apprenticeships within their own workforce, while degree apprenticeships, though still embryonic, have grown eightfold in number since they were launched in England and Wales in 2015. Degree apprenticeships have enthused parents. They are the preferred choice for the majority of parents in one survey – and universities are queuing up to introduce them and extend them to 43 industry areas.
The Government has a target to double the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university in 2020 compared to 2010. While there are concerns across the sector as a whole about lack of progress over fairer access, modern universities are blazing a trail. Modern universities are partnering with research-intensive universities and FE colleges to promote participation by students from under-represented groups: for example, the consortium of Bath Spa University, the University of Bath and Weston, Wiltshire and Bath colleges, the focus of whose outreach includes GCSE tutoring provision and activities in primary schools.
The effects of these innovations are wide-reaching, as graduates from a much wider pool of backgrounds enter different careers, and bring a web of new connections to their home communities. 85% of Middlesex University students fall into one of the five widening participation categories, and over half are the first generation in their family to go to university.
Responding to the pressures currently facing HE, it may be tempting to seek refuge in the return to a more exclusive higher education model. This would mean losing the benefits of a diverse sector and failing to acknowledge the wider connectedness of the best modern universities. The challenge in the face of harsh financial reality is not to regress, but to think freshly about what higher education in the 21st century should be.