“Higher education sector organisation releases new strategic plan” is not usually a headline to make the pulse race.
But when that organisation is Universities UK, and its chief executive Vivienne Stern sums up the issues facing the sector as “an interlocking set of policy and political challenges which are the hardest problems I’ve ever seen” then there’s a case to take an interest.
I caught up with Vivienne and her team at Universities UK conference – the annual gathering of heads of institution and senior sector leaders that traditionally sets the political weather for the year ahead. In previous years universities ministers and secretaries of state have taken the opportunity to reset relationships, harangue the sector, or announce new initiatives, depending on the political moment.
It’s also the opportunity for the UUK president, as the nominated convenor of the policy agenda for universities and de facto spokesperson for the sector, to set out their stall. In her keynote address incoming president Sally Mapstone, principal and vice chancellor of St Andrews University, doubled down on the sector’s growing financial challenges and a plea to policymakers for a more stable funding settlement – noting that among other things the sector is in need of a long term plan to reverse real-terms wage decline for staff and address issues of job insecurity.
Nobody expected either skills, FE and HE minister Robert Halfon or shadow secretary of state for education Bridget Philipson to say anything concrete on funding for universities, and so nobody was disappointed when each duly fudged the question when it was put to them.
Pony and trap
These interactions with policymakers illustrate the political trap that Universities UK is in – everyone knows that universities are cash-strapped, and that this has real consequences for student success, for economic growth and productivity, and for the UK’s research and innovation ambitions, just as everyone knows that in the current economic climate politicians will bend over backwards to avoid putting themselves in a position that might mean they had to make public spending commitments.
Universities cannot command the kind of public support that would push politicians out of their position – and especially as the country moves onto an election footing, the habit of some politicians of using universities to create electoral dividing lines exacerbates the problem. There’s a risk, therefore, that sector lobbying is too easy to dismiss as self-serving, and out of touch with public concerns – though this, I think, is not the position of current DfE ministers or their counterparts elsewhere in the UK. The larger risk, then, is that Universities UK and government ministers become locked in a performative dance in which nothing much changes, and the sector becomes increasingly cynical and apathetic.
This is the context in which vice chancellors gathered in Manchester – political stasis, pressure on university budgets, ongoing industrial action and, in England, growing tensions with the regulator. If it hadn’t been for the widespread jubilation over the announcement of Horizon Europe affiliation lifting the mood it could have been a very gloomy few days indeed.
Yet Vivienne is characteristically upbeat – because Universities UK has a plan.
The chief executive and her team had been wrestling with the problem, as chief of staff Stephanie Harris puts it, “how we can get off the back foot, and not be playing defence the whole time.” “There were a lot of sports metaphors flying around,” adds Vivienne.
Since the closure of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the creation of its replacement the Office for Students Universities UK had found itself taking on responsibilities for more and more policy activity. Some of this is classic convening of sector-wide conversations around an emerging issue such as student mental health, or the creation of useful sector artefacts like a concordat on research integrity. And some has been in response to veiled or explicit threats of legislation or regulation in which Universities UK has sought to demonstrate the sector’s capability to act without being forced to – sexual and racial harassment and misconduct being a good example.
All valued and worthwhile activity – but stretching the capacity of the UUK policy team which, it’s worth noting, is arguably the most significant concentration of higher education policy expertise in the country. And not always – sometimes, but not always – in close alignment with the most pressing challenges occupying the minds of institutional senior teams. The organisation had to find a way to focus its resources on the most important things.
The second issue was the policy trap – knowing that funding would be a defining issue for her tenure as chief executive, Vivienne was turning over the question of how to make the case for funding. “Universities are not self-serving,” she says. “When you spend time at universities you see that they are always doing things because it’s what their town or city or region needs. But UUK has not always been very good at not appearing self-serving.”
The answer came over what Vivienne assures me was a quiet drink on Christmas Eve: “I realised it is as simple as, are universities going to get better or are they going to get worse? Do we accept the slow and inevitable decline of a once-great system – or can we throw everything we have into helping universities be better?”
Funding universities generates a return on public investment in the form of skills, economic growth, scientific innovation, international soft power, rich cultural assets, and more. But policymakers need to be convinced that universities are capable of grounding their case for funds not just on past successes, but on the basis of what might be achieved in the future.
That means Universities UK must engage in detail with the challenges government is wrestling with, and produce critical analysis of how the ways that universities can make the country better might need to develop further or change if they are to continue realising their value. In practice, it means more thinking about the future of work, skills, and innovation and how to maximise universities’ contribution across their core missions of teaching and research.
As Vivienne puts it: ““We have maybe 0.5 FTE working on economic growth – when we need half the team working on it. We’re trying to get enough human beings working on the question of, is our university system performing for the country?” Or, as Sally Mapstone argued in her conference address: “To gain the public investment we need, we must earn it.” And thus, the strapline for the new strategy was born: “A common cause: thriving universities, serving society.”
Changing the weather
I’m curious whether the political influencing environment has changed, given the frequent changes of government of late, and the sense that the country seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next. As political parties move into a pre-election footing, I wonder whether it is possible to cut through the chaos and cynicism to really make a difference.
Again, the UUK team is upbeat – if the outlook is dismal, people can be more open to ideas. “I did lots of bleak number crunching on economic outlook, climate change, labour markets and so on, “ says policy analyst Ed Castell. “The scale of the challenge means we’re at a unique point where people are looking for solutions – we can offer that as a sector.”
If anything, Vivienne considers this a “perfect moment” for lobbyists either because there are parties trying to work out what they would do in government but without much resource to work up new policy ideas, or because the government is facing major economic challenges. Steph adds that while traditional influencing through evidence will be part of the plan, there’s also an opportunity to “bring the sector together on shared problems.”
Wins for universities have been few and far between of late, but the sector has secured the graduate route for international students and, of course, Horizon Europe affiliation. Both, notes Vivienne, took years of patient influencing work to achieve. Universities should probably prepare for the bulk of the rest of this decade to be lean – it’s notable that in addition to making the case for public investment the UUK strategy pledges to support universities “to develop efficient, innovative and diverse business models.”
The wild card in the year ahead though, is the prospect of ongoing politicisation of universities for electoral gain. In her address to the conference, shadow secretary of state Bridget Philipson pledged that a Labour government would not use universities as a political football. Though that of course would not rule out a future Labour government challenging universities to do more on issues like mental health, skills, quality, industrial relations or countless other issues, it would doubtless improve the quality of the conversation with policymakers and help take universities off the defensive.
But the bigger picture of improving the perception of universities in the public discourse isn’t something that can be straightforwardly accomplished with reports, or lobbying, or publicity campaigns, or any of the tools Universities UK has in its belt if deployed in isolation. Vivienne argues that a “relentless” campaign of evidence of why university education matters could eventually make a difference – but there is likely to be some more adverse weather ahead.
“I’d like to be able to demonstrate to the Conservatives that they are wrong that people care more about immigration and too many people at university than their aspiration for opportunity for their kids,” she says. “But to some extent we just have to put on our fluorescent hard hats and deal with it.”