Student and graduate views of the purpose of universities

As part of our 21st Century Lab project, led by Lincoln vice chancellor Mary Stuart, we surveyed students and alumni on their views of the purpose of the twenty-first century university, and how those purposes should be carried out.

We found that although most consider that the core business of education remains the fundamental purpose of universities there is a greater understanding and endorsement among students of research, solving challenges, and creating a stronger society, than might be expected.

The University of Lincoln’s 21st Century Lab is designed to open up thinking on how the higher education sector should develop in response to the extensive changes we are seeing across the world in our economies, our societies, our nations, and in our cultures.

In 2018 the Lab’s first report Thinking Ahead was published, based on interviews with leading global figures from different walks of life, drawing out their perceptions of the challenges of our age. Work has since continued to develop a response to those challenges to create a manifesto for universities in the 21st century – due for publication in November.

The manifesto seeks to address the question of the relevance and significance of the role that universities should have supporting our societies within the environment of significant upheaval and volatility. A core argument is that institutions in the 21st century will need to embrace a more fluid, more contingent and more permeable relationship to wider society than ever before. As a result, the Lab has been developing the concept of the permeable university. The manifesto will consider this concept in relation to the three core activities of universities: to educate, to research and to engage.

About the survey

A key challenge has been to balance the complexity and interconnectedness of the world around us this century with a cohesive call to action as to how universities might adapt. As part of this week we developed a survey to better assess current perceptions of UK students and alumni on the purpose of universities.

The 21st Century Lab survey was conducted in late August to early September 2019 with the support of Toluna to recruit a robust sample of 598 UK students and alumni. The data is representative of individuals in the UK educated at university-level in the last 15 years, including currently enrolled students, degree or equivalent and higher education graduate alumni.

The sample is balanced 50:50 male/female; 75 per cent are educated at vocational/undergraduate levels and 25 per cent postgraduate or doctorate levels. All are older than 18 years. The data is weighted to represent ages of UK alumni (graduates) and students in the population, as per sizing estimates recently published in the UK Labour Force Survey Q1-2019 and by HESA 2019.

This work was informed by other studies recently published in this space, including a YouGov poll for the Civic University Commission and the public perceptions work Britain Thinks did with Universities UK.

Not just a means to an end: the purpose of universities

Contrary, to some assumptions, students, and in particular alumni recognise the broad variety of roles that universities play. First and foremost, 71 per cent overall consider the purpose of university is to educate/inspire learning and most also see the role in helping students find work/develop their career (51 per cent). However, beyond this, the role of academic research is clearly acknowledged – both in terms of furthering the pursuit of knowledge (50 per cent), and in solving current challenges (38 per cent).

Many also recognise the wider contribution of universities to help create a stronger society (53 per cent). However, it seems there is a fragmented understanding around the specific ways in which universities work with other institutions and society. Indeed, our findings build on the Britain Thinks recommendation that there is room to communicate more about local benefit. We agree that this should move beyond the civic engagement heading to cover particular engagement activities with specific community groups and on specific social issues.

A two-way street: broadening community links

A key consideration in the manifesto will be the role of governance in supporting permeable ways of working across universities. So it was reassuring to capture the scale of appetite from alumni and students for increasing the breadth of stakeholders that are involved within internal university governance.

The ideal university governing board is seen to include: university staff (53 per cent), students or representatives (48 per cent), university leadership (42 per cent), and alumni (41 per cent). Many would also like to see included: Local community & organisations (32 per cent), schools & colleges (31 per cent), business interests (30 per cent) and local government (24 per cent).

The desire to see representation from alumni and schools & colleges is interesting considering that they aren’t typically included on university boards at present. It seems something worthy of further consideration especially given the ongoing policy interest in having universities involved in the running of schools and the increasing recognition of greater join up across the education system.

When considering the external partnerships that universities develop, around half the respondents supported a focus on creating active links with businesses and a similar number with schools and colleges. Almost a third suggested links with healthcare providers and local government and a quarter with the voluntary sector and cultural and arts providers.

Research and lifelong learning are interlinked

The manifesto will consider the role of research in relation to the expertise that graduates will need to help them adapt throughout their working lives. We explored engagement in academic research, with “engaged” defined on a scale: read about, used, discussed, participated. The survey finds considerable interest from both students and alumni in ongoing participation in academic research. Interest is highest among those exposed to research whilst at university, yet even with no exposure, a majority still show interest. 92 per cent of those who did engage with research welcome further opportunities to stay informed and 70 per cent of those who did not previously engage with research at university are open to doing so in relevant areas of interest.

Relatively little is known about the direct ways in which students interact with the research undertaken by their universities. We found that 30 per cent of students and alumni recall learning about their institution’s research through talks or seminars while 21 per cent accessed it through published journals and books. 13 per cent had the opportunity to get personally involved. When looking at those who did not previously engage with academic research, half recognise they were not interested, but the other half feel disappointed not to have had the opportunity to engage (18 per cent of all students and alumni).

We also found that there is a relationship between involvement in research and the wider experience of university. Those who had the opportunity to engage with research are more likely to be considering additional university education in the future. Looking beyond their time at university, alumni who engaged with research see more opportunities to improve their organisation through access to university research, particularly in the fields of technology, innovation and analytics/data science.

Continuing the conversation

Gathering these insights has added a richness to the thought development process for our manifesto. There are clear signals from alumni and students to support the premise that universities need to reach across an increasing complexity of issues with a broad range of partners as we go further into the twenty-first century. We look forward to ongoing conversations across the sector once the manifesto is published.

University of Lincoln vice chancellor Mary Stuart will be talking more about the 21st Century Lab project at Wonkfest on 4-5 November in London. View the full programme and book your tickets now. 

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