When I first told my family I was writing a book about universities, one of them said to me, “Jim, the problem with universities is they are too busy being woke and cancelling Shakespeare.” Now, we can think that comment is unhelpful or misplaced but it speaks to a wider truth that universities aren’t as popular as they are important.
Balanced against a more general scepticism, we know from the Millennium Cohort Study that 97 per cent of mothers, regardless of whether they went to university themselves, want their children to do so.
Playing a crucial role
In considering a vague and often loud scepticism about universities against a shared ambition to attend them, surely Covid-19 has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that universities are as valuable as our mothers believe. Without the patient funding and research into zoonotic diseases, diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, psychology, economics, and dozens of other fields, a recovery of sorts would not have been possible.
From the breakthroughs in vaccines to the breakdown in barriers between partners to support local towns and cities, universities have never been more visible. The question for all of us who care about universities is what have we learned about their capacity to change, support, and connect during Covid-19 that should be preserved?
In The New University, I’ve made an early attempt to answer this question. I’ve tried to write a book which is not only for those who think our sector is already brilliant but for those who are sceptical about what we do because they are yet to feel or see the value of our work. If leaving the European Union has taught us anything, it is that it is not enough to tell somebody about the value of something to change their minds; we must show them as well.
And we should be under no illusions that we have stiff challenges to our value to come. I am writing this on the day that furlough ends. Not only is a potential job crisis on the way but the economic impacts of the pandemic have disproportionately impacted younger people.
Responding to challenges
The economic turbulence we are experiencing will shake out a need for even greater inter-disciplinary skills development in our curricula and from our careers departments but this alone will not be enough.
The greater challenge is how do universities transition from responding to the economic and social fallout of Covid-19 to shaping a post-pandemic future.
The value of universities is multi-faceted. However, we must always remember that at its heart university is a promise made to students that their lives are made better by attending, and a promise to society that public funding delivers social benefits.
As a means of stimulating demand in the economy, now is surely the time to stretch our capacity to impact our places. The New University looks at a number of measures but the work of Gloucester and Debenhams provides an interesting template on universities and high street revival. There is no better time to look at local procurement as an instrument for creating local jobs, and to truly embrace the opportunity for civic partners to shape the work of our institutions.
Feeling the benefit of universities also has a distinct cultural element. Understanding universities is like peering through frosted glass. From the outside so complex as to be shapeless but on the inside totally coherent for those within their walls.
Showcasing their work
The social dislocation of the pandemic is one of the myriad reasons it has been intensely awful but the digital pivot has put a new light on universities’ work as they took their hitherto hidden treasures to audiences in innovative ways.
Culture at Home brought the academic expertise of the University of Liverpool to children and parents to maintain education. The University of Aberdeen has a virtual Egyptian tomb available to anyone with sufficient internet connection. Add in Plymouth and the Ancient Mariner, Cumbrian students’ online art exhibition, Brighton’s winter showcase, and many other examples, and there is a burgeoning ecosystem of universities showing off their best when times have been at their worst. This could not be more important as we can’t expect people to value universities unless they have an emotional response to them.
Shaping the economy and shaping places is crucial but universities cannot do this on their own. The New University considers the role of government in funding research differently and the challenges of access for students post Covid-19.
There is a book’s worth of content to go into but two lessons stand out. The first is that when funding is directed at enormous challenges and the sector can mobilise behind a single issue then huge progress can be made more quickly than ever imagined. Tackling the issues of climate change and the social inequality it will wrought must be top of the list.
The second is that the world, the economy, our society, and the life chances of those who benefit most from university, will not be improved by a smaller higher education sector.
It is incumbent on all of us who care about it to capture the optimism that 97 per cent of mothers have for their children and usher in the institutions that the post-pandemic world demands. As shapers of local economies. Cultural titans close to communities. And potentially the single most powerful tool for social mobility we have ever seen.