University College Birmingham sits right in the centre of the city. It is surrounded by bars and restaurants, and there is a bustle of people going from the train station and into town.
The thing with University College Birmingham is that it is, like many, an institution which reflects the city, its people and its economy. A perfect venue then for the dinner we held in partnership with Wonkhe, with former universities minister David Willetts, to discuss how universities and colleges can contribute to the growth agenda – the discussion that forms the basis of this article.
At dinner, guests were fed, served, and catered to by UCB students. The replica restaurant was not only indistinguishable from any great meal out, but epitomised the approach to learning embraced by many institutions: embedded in and shaped by the needs of the industries students will eventually work in.
Earlier that day, the universities minister had apparated imaginary cohorts of students taking Harry Potter studies – the contrast at UCB could not have been more stark. These are students who are taking advanced qualifications, in areas to meet labour market demand, within an institution committed to its civic mission. The minister need not open the Chamber of Secrets to find the actual work universities are doing; she could have walked down the road.
Though much mocked, the statement was not inconsequential. It damages the reputation of universities internationally within a competitive global market. Imagine the business secretary saying British firms were uncompetitive or the trade secretary saying Britain is difficult to do business with. It is where fighting yesterday’s culture wars is neither phoney nor funny.
The statement also sends a signal to the wider higher education sector on the appetite for the government to engage in the substantive issues impacting universities. At a macro scale, the cost of living crisis will make the whole financial viability of the sector wobblier, and at a micro scale, this will inevitably lead to a loss of capacity across the sector.
The cost of living crisis, compounded by the erosion of the value of fees, leads to only a few possible policy responses. At the most optimistic end, there is a recognition that these dual crises will engender imaginative responses. There is a widespread acceptance that universities will have to absorb a significant outlay to support staff and students through the winter. Civic initiatives like using universities as warm banks, community hubs, and the like, will likely be embraced in parts of the sector but will not be without cost.
The changing landscape will also accelerate the debate on the size and shape of the sector. One response could be that a few universities become much larger to offset the real term cuts to fees. For a government going for growth, it’s likely universities will have to expand postgraduate offers to cope with demand and to innovate in more flexible and digital offers. And for a government which needs new international relationships, it’s likely universities will also have to diversify their international intake.
Joining the dots
These solutions are significant, but they cannot resolve the substantive challenges the sector faces. The question of whether lifelong loan entitlements along with modular degrees are still a policy priority hangs over the sector. There is clearly an appetite for more FE-HE pathways, and there will be several universities that may begin to look even more comprehensive as they run programmes from GCSE to PhD. If growth is predicated for skills, the regulatory regime will also need to provide enough bandwidth for risk to train a broad-based workforce whose skills may be ahead of a market which will one day catch up.
Aside from teaching, learning, and regulation, growth is also dependent on universities and their research. There is no questioning its value, but it is not financially self-sufficient, and it becomes even less so if public funding were to be reduced. This version of the government appears to view growth for growth’s sake as good regardless of the overall distributive impacts. While universities can back a research and growth argument, they have arguably struggled to articulate how this work fits in with the narratives of a more conservative Conservative government.
There are no illusions about the size of the challenge, but there is optimism that the sector is robust, and that it can adapt. The key question for this government is if it wants universities to teach students for the future, fire the economy through research, grow Britain’s international reach, level up towns and cities, grow access and opportunity, and provide civic services, is it willing to invest public money to do so? If it can step back from the culture wars, and from talking down much of what goes on in the higher education sector, it will find many willing partners to help drive growth.