When the clock struck ten on 8 June 2017 and the exit polls came through, few would have boldly wagered that by mid-2019 the two major parties would both see themselves in such dire straits.
From near duopoly to rapid fragmentation, we are seeing a dramatic shift, the consequences of which we will feel the impact of for some time. In these uncertain times, it is more important than ever for universities to cut through the noise and understand what their most senior parliamentary stakeholders are likely to engage with.
ComRes, on behalf of Universities UK, conducted research amongst their Parliamentary panel to get a weather-check on current thought in Westminster on the contemporary role of universities, and how they can best communicate with MPs. The results offer sound direction for future stakeholder engagement for universities.
The strong message emerging for universities is that providing Britain with a well-equipped workforce for the future is at the top of MPs’ minds when it comes to performance. For Conservative MPs, there is a particular emphasis on business collaboration and internationalism, whereas for Labour MPs there is a greater attention towards pastoral duties and social mobility.
In contrast, when it comes to communications and reporting, societal duties are of higher importance, which for Conservative MPs means greater prominence to business engagement and employability, and for Labour MPs means student support and social mobility. Understanding these priorities, and anticipating their shifts, will be of great importance for the higher education sector as political uncertainty looks set to grasp Westminster full throttle over the period to come.
What do MPs want from universities?
Overall, half of MPs (50 per cent) are most interested in hearing about universities’ activities relating to widening participation and improving social mobility in their communications. This is the subject area that leads the way in interest overall. This is particularly true of Labour MPs, of whom three in five (63 per cent) say they are most interested in hearing about universities’ activities in this field. On the other side of the chamber, the most pressing topic, amongst nearly half of Conservative MPs (45 per cent), is hearing about the employability of graduates in communications from universities.
For MPs, the top priorities for universities in spending funding gained through tuition fees and government grants are: developing new courses to respond to changing skills needs in the UK (53 per cent), improving teaching quality (52 per cent), and conducting world-class research (45 per cent). Naturally, there is some divergence of priorities along party lines. For example, half of Labour MPs think that universities should prioritise spending funding gained through tuition fees and government grants on initiatives to increase the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds entering higher education (51 per cent) and supporting all students throughout their studies including mental health and disability provision (49 per cent). In contrast, just one in five Conservative MPs think the same (22 per cent and 21 per cent respectively).
Notably, half of MPs that voted Remain (47 per cent) think that universities should prioritise spending funding gained through tuition fees and government grants on initiatives to increase the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds entering higher education, in comparison to just one in five MPs who voted Leave (17 per cent). This differing prioritisation is mirrored in expectations for collaboration with business and industry, with half of MPs that voted Leave (53 per cent) of the view that universities should treat this as a priority, in comparison to just one in five MPs who voted Remain (20 per cent). Remain and Leave can serve as party proxies to some extent, and there are notable party differences in ambitions and priorities for higher education. Anticipating these will be key for universities to best engage with the government of the day.
The full results of the poll can be viewed on the ComRes website.