Chris Skidmore suggests what universities can do to help recovery from the pandemic
Universities in the UK are understandably distracted by the huge task of managing the risk of coronavirus among their students and staff, while simultaneously leading research to find a vaccine. But they will also be central to how Britain recovers from the pandemic.
In the short term, this recovery must surely be about jobs. As this week’s report from the UPP Foundation—whose advisory board I chair—shows, we are going to see many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people lose their jobs in towns and cities across the country, despite immense efforts and amounts of money being spent to minimise this by government and employers.
Unless we want to return to an era of intractable unemployment blackspots, universities should lead the charge in supporting people to gain new skills and new jobs. The commitment by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, to a free A-Level equivalent qualification is welcome, but it’s only a start.
For example, this initiative will do nothing for the three quarters of non-graduates who could benefit from retraining but already have a qualification at that level and therefore will not be allowed to access Johnson’s new fighting fund.
As well as building more flexibility into this initiative, we need to change the student funding system so that the millions of newly unemployed have access to loans to study not just A-Level equivalents but also higher-level technical qualifications at college and university. As minister for universities, I championed a ‘hop on, hop off’ system of learning. We need this approach now more than ever.
Beyond coronavirus, there’s another set of political challenges to which universities must respond: Conservatives’ commitment to “levelling up” in deprived communities across the country. At a time when jobs are being lost, we cannot afford for universities to fail in areas such as Teesside, the Midlands, and other regions across the country. Instead, we need them to step up and ask not what the government can do for them, but what they can do for their community.
The UPP Foundation report sets out what voters in these type of post-industrial towns—many of which voted Conservative for the first time in 2019—want to see. And the priorities are clear: universities working to raise standards in schools, help the NHS, and support the modernisation of the high street and town centres.
In turn, we should recognise the place-based value of universities as regional institutions, many of which employ thousands of local people in Red Wall seats, and which can continue to regenerate towns, as they have cities.
It means thinking about what universities can do for towns near them where they don’t have a campus but which need support—like the work Nottingham Trent University is doing in Mansfield to train and educate a new generation of nurses for the town and wider East Midlands.
This is why I was delighted to be asked to chair the Higher Education Commission’s next inquiry, which will look at universities’ roles in their regions.
It is fashionable in some quarters to attack universities at the moment. But if they can help tackle the impending unemployment crisis, support retraining and become central to the lives of ordinary people across all our communities, they can lead a long-overdue civic renaissance.
Chris Skidmore is a two-time former minister of state for universities, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Universities, and chair of the UPP Foundation Advisory Board