To win public investment, universities must earn it, says UUK

As heads of institution gathered in Manchester for UUK conference, political stormclouds were gathering. Debbie McVitty finds out what Universities UK's plan is to restore universities' fortunes

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

“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.

Centre forward

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.”

You can view and download the Universities UK strategic plan 2024-30 here.

5 responses to “To win public investment, universities must earn it, says UUK

  1. As with every plan, unless it’s adaptable it’ll fail at first contact with reality or it’ll drag everything and everyone down with it. Even with full 6P planning.

  2. Another piece on this site that was published recently blames UCU and colleagues working in the sector for a failure to work with UUK/UCEA on a more secure funding model for HE. It claims that by ignoring the unequal distribution of budget surpluses and financial reserves across the sector that UCU has engaged in an “unrealistic characterisation of sector finances” that has “undermined” its case in a “notable and sad” way.

    However, here we have a piece celebrating a strategy by UUK that does exactly the same thing. Under the section entitled “Securing Sustainable funding” the UUK document points out the gaps in research income and student funding. Whilst these are valid points and ones we would expect UUK to be making forcefully to government ministers, the document fails to acknowledge that some universities are nevertheless making more money than ever before whilst others are having to defer the most recent below inflation pay “rise” because they can’t afford it.

    The pie is shrinking, and more needs to be done to tackle that, but UUK has also been instrumental in ensuring that some universities get more of that shrinking pie than others (even within their own membership). As a membership organisation, UUK has the power to speak with a united voice in favour of a more egalitarian approach to University funding (as UCU has done for more than a decade). Having once again failed to do so, why is there no critique of UUK’s approach?

    1. I’m not following your point here. UUK doesn’t allocate funding or design the mechanisms for allocating funding, so it can’t really be blamed for the fact that some universities have less than others. Instead, it makes the point that universities do not receive enough funding to cover the costs of the work they do on behalf of the government – which is empirically true.

  3. My argument is that UCU has been critiqued for an “unrealistic characterisation of sector finances”, but the same could be said of UUK’s recent strategy document that points out an aggregate shortfall in sector finances whilst ignoring that a minority of its members are making considerably greater profits and are in more robust financial health than before 2014, particularly when compared to others in the sector.

    You are right that “UUK doesn’t allocate funding or design the mechanisms for allocating funding”, but my assumption is that by placing the claim about per-capita student shortfalls within a section called “Securing Sustainable Funding”, UUK intends to lobby this and future governments to close that gap. In other words, whilst not allocating funds or designing systems, they understand that they are an important pressure group within that policy arena and have chosen to present a case for pre-capita increases in student funding.

    This lobbying effort is very welcome, particularly if it is targeted at increasing the proportion of sector costs funded by the taxpayer, rather than directly by fee-paying students. However, if UUK are unwilling to address the elephant in the room, namely that while significant proportions of the sector may be struggling, certain “winners” from the current funding model and marketised regime are enjoying massive surpluses, then I’d argue it is also presenting an “unrealistic characterisation of sector finances”.

    Even if per-capita student funding is increased, we will still exist within a sector where a large number of institutions are unable to plan beyond the next admissions round, increasing workload pressures, encouraging greater precarity and casualisation, and under investment in long-term strategic planning. UUK’s strategy document could recognise the failings of the marketisation seen since 2010 (and particularly 2014), but it fails to do so. In the process, it conveniently ignores the fact that for many institutions the problem is not per-capita funding, but instead that whilst they contend with the number of empty classrooms and bedrooms on their over-leveraged estates, fellow UUK members down the road are having to house students off-campus and live-stream over-subscribed lectures in overspill theatres. I’d personally argue that’s worthy of at least a passing critique.

    1. I should note that I really enjoyed your 2022 piece on student number controls David and it seems like we agree on the positive impact that reintroducing a revised model could have. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s unfair to critique UUK for not only failing to make the case for a policy that we both seem to agree would provide a more sustainable funding model for the sector, but also conveniently ignoring the impact that the current policy has had on sector finances when making the case for an alternative solution to financial troubles amongst a minority of UUK members.

Leave a Reply