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It’s time to tackle the crisis of confidence in our universities

As universities face an unprecedented level of reputational challenges, Universities UK CEO Alistair Jarvis argues that it's time for the fightback to begin.
This article is more than 6 years old

Alistair Jarvis is Pro Vice Chancellor (Partnerships and Governance) at the University of London.

Universities are under intense scrutiny and in danger of being unfairly categorised as elite, aloof and detached from individuals, communities and day-to-day challenges.

But universities are not in crisis; they are powerful institutions delivering deep and lasting value to communities in all corners of the world. However, universities do have some serious reputational issues that need addressing.

We need to respond to these challenges, robustly, with evidence, promoting our values, promoting our impact and engaging with a diverse range of audiences. It’s time for a fightback.

Firstly, we need to consider three important questions:

  1. What are the big misconceptions that are fuelling a crisis of confidence?
  2. What are the evidence-based ripostes to these challenges?
  3. What can universities do to turn the tide and enhance our reputations?

There are currently a number of myths being widely peddled that need evidence-based rebuttal.

The claim that getting a degree isn’t worth it, that you’re better off not going to university does not stack up when you look at the evidence. Graduates, across the world, benefit from a university education and are in high demand. In the UK, graduates earn substantially more than non-graduates, even when the costs of fees, loans and taxes are taken into account.

A UK Government study showed that women with a degree earn on average £252,000 more over their lifetime than non-graduates. Men with degrees earn on average £168,000 more than those without. The most recent official Office for National Statistics graduate labour market study published in April 2017 suggests an even higher graduate premium. It said that in 2016, working age graduates (aged 16-64) had an annual salary £9,500 higher on average than non-graduates. If you work for 40 years, this is almost £400,000 additional earnings over your lifetime.

And graduate ‘success’ is not just about salaries which are not the only measure of success. Some universities specialise in fields such as the arts, the creative industries, nursing and public-sector professions that, despite making an essential contribution to society and the economy, pay less on average.

Going to university transforms people’s lives. A higher education has also been shown to be a good route to health and happiness. Studies show that on average, graduates enjoy better health, well-being and life satisfaction.

So, do not let anyone get away with saying that a university education isn’t worth it.

And do not let anyone get away with the claim that there are too many graduates. Employers are saying they want to employ more, not fewer graduates and the rate of new graduate jobs is growing. In the UK, 74% of new jobs created by 2020 will be in occupations with the highest amount of graduates. The latest graduate market research from High Fliers showed that Britain’s top employers were expecting to increase graduate recruitment – for the fifth year running – by 4.3% in 2017.

According to some commentators, university degrees are no longer valued, and people are turning their backs on higher education. In reality, despite the fall in the number of 18 and 19-year-olds across Britain since 2010, the rate of applications from this age group is at record levels.

Some commentators claim that universities just benefit the elite not the person on the street. The misconception is that universities are ivory towers, that they do nothing for local communities. It’s right that politicians and the public expect universities to deliver value to communities beyond the campus boundary. As universities, we need to more effectively demonstrate our public value and engage with diverse communities.

Universities deliver private benefits to graduates and also deliver huge amounts of public good to everyone across society, including those who haven’t been to university, in every community.

Universities train the people that every community relies upon… our teachers, our doctors, our engineers, innovators and wealth-creators. Currently, at UK universities: 63,000 nurses, 62,000 doctors and dentists; and 75,000 teachers are being trained.

Universities contribute more than £73bn to the UK economy, nearly 3% of UK GDP, and support more than 750,000 jobs across every region. These are not just jobs at universities; these are a wide variety of jobs in local communities.

Universities also produce cutting edge research that changes lives. Medical advances which allow people to live longer, new cures for diseases and discoveries that prevent illness. Engineering expertise and advances at universities mean that people benefit from better houses, faster trains and new technologies. Universities research has a positive impact on communities across the world – reducing pollution, tackling climate change, improving clean water supplies and builder understanding between people of different cultures.

Universities provide facilities for the community, for example, sports centres shared with schools; free legal advice to residents, support services to businesses; apply their research expertise to local priorities, and act as vocal advocates for their town, city or region. There are four million public visits to university galleries and museums. 750,000 students volunteer in communities.

However, given that there are still occasions when universities are seen as ivory towers, there is more that we need to do to promote our positive local impact. We must redouble efforts to tackle the myth that universities just benefit the elite and not the person on the street.

Some claim that universities are too focused on their international links to the detriment of local people. The challenge is often followed by the assertion that there are too many international students at our universities.

I make no apologies for our universities being global institutions, but we must get better at explaining why our international links benefit our local communities. We are best when we are outward looking, globally networked and welcoming to the world. We want to play a role in working with international counterparts to address the global challenges of our age, to seek out and collaborate with the best minds wherever they are. 

Overseas students play a vital role in thriving local economies. The on and off-campus spending by international students – and their visitors – generates almost £26bn a year for the UK economy.

This spending supports jobs across the UK – their off-campus spending alone created 206,600 full-time equivalent jobs in communities across every region of the UK. One major national study suggested that each international student supports 0.45 British. That means that for every a 100 international students they come to study in the UK, 45 jobs are created.

But the value of international student and staff is about much more than money and employment. International students and staff provide many other benefits, academically and culturally. Students and academics from other countries enrich the academic experience and campus life for all students. Campuses are international communities, provide students them with early global experience and cultural understanding. Our international alumni that add so much to the UK’s soft power around the world. Many return home having forged strong professional and personal links that provide long-term benefits for Britain.

It is our job to tell the story of why an international outlook is good for our local communities. We need to do this more effectively and to a wider range of people – to illustrate why international links our universities make are important to everyone, not just important to the people who run universities.

So what can universities do to turn the tide and enhance our reputations?

We must fight back with evidence…

Cabinet Minister MP Michael Gove famously said ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. I say ‘It’s time for revenge of the experts…’. We are society’s truth seekers, building knowledge and promoting understanding must be at the core of our work.

We should be robust in challenging evidence-free claims; we should not be shy in responding to incorrect assertions and using facts to combat myths.

We must do much more than broadcast messages; we need to develop proper long-term engagement and build a shared understanding with our communities.

It means listening to and understanding concerns, addressing challenges and adapting when engagement isn’t working. We should constantly strive for deeper and better engagement with our communities to increase the value we deliver, socially, economically – particularly locally. We must redouble our efforts to engage with diverse audiences in new and innovative ways, seeking to find new opportunities to add value.

We should promote our values as well as our impact.

Universities should champion our values and redouble our efforts to promote the values of openness, diversity, internationalism, freedom of speech, tolerance – that make British universities the envy of the world. We should explain why values matter, why they increase our impact on society and why they are of benefit to today’s world.

It’s time to fight back and address this crisis of confidence. We need you to rise to the challenge.

This article is based on remarks delivered at the CASE Europe Annual Conference in Birmingham on 29th August 2017. 

8 responses to “It’s time to tackle the crisis of confidence in our universities

  1. Alistair –

    The IFS says “The 2012 reform increased the total level of resources universities receive per student per degree by around 25% from £22,500 to £28,000 in 2017 prices. This was a result of the increase in tuition fee income exceeding the loss in teaching grant income.” ( This is reflected in HESA data for teaching income at English HEIs, which rose by 25% between 2011/12 and 2015/16. By way of comparison, further education colleges in England saw funding body and teaching grant income fall by 10.4% over the same four-year period (source: SFA

    Could you tell me how HEIs spent their extra income? Did they increase contact hours, for example? Did teaching staff see the benefit? (If the Guardian is to be believed, the answer is no, probably not:

    At least some of the extra income has been spent on construction projects, topped up by substantial loans. Hefce has warned that across the sector as a whole, ‘Borrowing levels are expected to exceed liquidity levels in all forecast years, by £49 million at 31 July 2016, increasing to £3.9 billion at 31 July 2019,’ adding that ‘This trend of increasing borrowing and reducing liquidity is unsustainable in the long term.’ ( Do you have a view on this?

    HNDs, HNCs and Foundation Degrees have been withdrawn by many HEIs that used to offer them. This is directly contrary to a key recommendation in the Dearing Report, “Higher Education in the Learning Society” (1997). As you know, the Dearing Report led to a new wave of growth in higher education, as well as the introduction of tuition fees. But Dearing also said ‘We believe that much of the further growth of higher education, at least in the short term, should be in the Higher National Certificate, the Higher National Diploma and other analogous awards.’ Why was that recommendation first ignored and then forgotten?

    In the same vein, there has been a dramatic fall in part-time study. Do you have any qualms about this? If so, what should we do about it?

    Despite the shift to tuition fees, public funding continues to underpin higher education to the tune of several billion pounds a year, not least through the RAB charge. HEIs (and by extension, UUK) need to explain in rather more detail how money is spent, and how future governance arrangements will provide transparency, assurance and accountability.

  2. Yes much to agree on Alistair but UUK is unable or unwilling to tackle the issue that its members really must address – the question of VC pay. Turkeys won’t vote for Christmas – and as a result the perception of VC ‘fat cats’ will undermine many of the sound arguments we make about the role and position of our universities. David Coslett @dlcoslett

  3. You were not going to say otherwise. What do you say to all those graduates that are underemployed?

  4. I suggest that the business model of Academia itself is obsolete. The memorisation-as-learning model implemented was invalid from the start, now self-evidently dysfunctional and made obsolete by wikipedia and the rest of the internet. The journal/peer review system long understood to be horribly patriarchal, myopic, and corrupt. Research funding long since exploited far beyond the value now provided by it. Salaries and retirements like Ponzi schemes, science research long since hijacked by pharma and others is now being bought wholesale by climate-change politicians and sold by self-congratulatory groups of self-defined experts. As if that wasn’t enough, an intellectually immature generation is bargaining away their free speech and intellectual diversity in return for a thicker slice of emotional comfort. If Academia once persuaded generations of students that it held both intellectual and moral high ground, it does so no longer.

    Did I forget something ?
    This is a walking dodo bird.

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