Five ways to reclaim universities’ influence and reputation in 2020
Shân Wareing, University of Northampton
“The challenge for universities is to maintain general respect and avoid sinking to a position where people see the value of their nearest university but question the value of higher education as a whole” said Nick Hillman in December 2019.
How to meet this challenge is an important question as we start 2020. The government’s spending review and Augar response, and Brexit, are waiting in the wings, with the possibility of reduced fee and research income, while universities struggle to contain the rising costs of pensions and face the prospect of increasingly being evaluated based on the earnings of their graduates.
The work universities do is so self-evidently of value to those who work within them in ways that include graduate salaries but go far beyond individuals’ earnings, that we seem to struggle to understand how we could be perceived less favourably by taxpayers, parents, employers and policymakers.
But pick up almost any newspaper on almost any day, and it will show that repeatedly in recent years we seem to have failed to make the case to our communities and our media. And occasionally, we’ve scored own goals by appearing insular, privileged and self-serving.
What will drive improved status and influence of the higher education sector in 2020? Collectively, we need to look outwards and focus more on our common agendas than what separates us. We should aim to develop holistic financial solutions to the challenges of post-compulsory education in the UK, brokering solutions to how to fund FE and HE, rather than robbing Peter to pay Paul, and exacerbating divisions.
When we lobby government and influencers, it needs to be about what we can do for them, not what they should do for us. Fortunately, what universities can do for government is a long and vibrant list.
First, we need to emphasise consistently that higher education is key to future economic growth and global competitiveness, to sustaining local economies and revitalising regions. We support start-ups, SMEs, public sector and large corporates; we need to prepare for meeting the needs of businesses facing different opportunities and challenges post-Brexit.
Second, we need to focus on the contribution universities make to solving global “wicked” problems, such as how we drive progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, meet the challenges of sustainability and climate crisis, contribute to Industrial Revolution 4.0 including artificial intelligence, automation, big data, and communications technology, and finding solutions to the impact these will have on business models in industry and employment, including what follows from the effect they have on reducing entry-level jobs; we must show the scale and value of our contribution to all aspects of health provision through education and research.
Third, we have to be nimble in providing solutions to immediate PR problems, by being able to swiftly respond to prominent agendas in the news which put the government under pressure.
Fourth, we need to appreciate the “hidden agendas” of voting patterns. Political parties don’t talk publicly about the need to sustain and create future voters but that doesn’t mean it’s not a driver for policy decisions. For the Conservatives, this means an anxiety that voters educated to degree level and beyond are less likely to vote Conservative; this concern to create future voters needs to be understood and navigated by the sector.
Fifth, we need to design solutions for costs and budgets of UK post-compulsory education as a whole, FE, HE, and workplace training and development. We need others to speak for us: employer and industry leaders to celebrate our research for industrial competitiveness; SMEs to talk about the knowledge transfer benefits of working with universities, individuals telling their stories about how their university enabled them to fulfil their aspirations for career fulfilment and security for their families.
If we want to shape our future over the coming parliamentary term and advance our agendas of developing knowledge to address global problems and transforming lives and communities, then we need to set aside divergent interests to collaborate for our collective influence and viability.
It’s time to renew the social contract between universities and society
Jonathan Grant, King’s College, London
Universities have been friendless for some time and this has largely been deserved because, as a sector, we have lost sight of our purpose and values. It is not a coincidence that in the General Election the Conservative vote increased in areas with the lowest number of graduates. If the current government wants to keep these new voters, universities are likely to remain politically friendless unless they radically and rapidly renew their social contract to be relevant to all communities in the UK and beyond.
So how do we address this wicked problem?
First, there should be an unrelenting commitment to increase higher education participation rates, as Nick Hillman has suggested on a number of occasions, to 80 per cent. To achieve this increase, universities need to take on broader responsibility for systems of education in the same way they have for health through the Academic Health Science Centres. This will mean not only sponsoring primary and secondary schools but also partnering, and in some cases merging, with further education colleges.
Second, research that has a local impact needs to be incentivised and rewarded. Last summer, I did a small piece of analysis of the 2014 REF impact case studies to assess which universities had the highest local impact – top of this league table was the University of Huddersfield and the University of Bradford. With the greatest respect to these institutions, they typically do not sit at the top of any university rankings, which indicates how we undervalue the local research impact of universities.
Third, universities need to use their buying power to maximise their social value. This means buying locally, purchasing from and contracting social enterprises, and ensuring that all parts of their supply chain operate in a socially responsible way. A simple ambition would be for all universities in the UK to pay the Living Wage by the end of 2020. It is shameful that (as of August 2019) only 38 universities are currently accredited with the Living Wage Foundation, which means that over 100 universities are not.
Ultimately it is up to universities to seize this challenge, renew their social contract and make meaningful contributions to all communities in 2020.
5 responses to “Wicked problems: universities have lost public confidence – here’s how we get it back”
Great articles by Shan and Jonathan today stressing the need for action in articulating our value as a sector #letstalkvalue #purpose beyond financial #socialcapital #humancapital #intellectualcapital
We can’t leave grade inflation out of this. Some universities are doubling or even near trebling the proportion of Firsts that they award, in the space of less than a decade. Much of that rise is “unexplained”, as the Office for Students puts it. How can the public have confidence in Higher Education Providers if a fundamental measure of HE provision is badly broken?
As of last year, the data about classification of degree awarded at graduation has been removed from the unistats dataset. When I asked OfS why that data has been removed, I was told that it was in part because publishing it might encourage HEPs to behave in a way that is “undesirable”. Presumably that means getting a bit giddy with the number of Firsts and 2:1s they hand out.
It is hard to see how public trust in universities is going to be repaired while the OfS thinks that the data about grades is so unreliable and/or inflammatory as to need to be hidden from public view.
“When we lobby government and influencers, it needs to be about what we can do for them, not what they should do for us. Fortunately, what universities can do for government is a long and vibrant list.”
Absolutely! Too often universities have been perceived either as pleading for favourable treatment in public funding (when, in the public consciousness, others have a better claim) or as defending their past record and achievements. Both risk coming across as defensive and self-serving. We need to create a sector narrative that is about the future and sets out the critical and unique role that universities can play in societal change, solving the big challenges of our age, and fulfilment of potential.
Shan and Jonathan allude to the need for universities to embrace collaboration in new ways. Gone are the days when universities will win the arguments by standing apart as an elite. Whilst as institutions, there is a long tradition of working with others, successful collaborations today which address our wicked problems may come from the unlikeliest of alliances. We need to seek out new partners; ways of engaging and collaborating, breaking down the traditional barriers, in particular those which embed us in the social fabric of society.