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What it’s worth

Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Higher education needs to get better at explaining its value, argues Chris Skidmore 

Last week I was delighted to be appointed co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities. I am looking forward to this role, working alongside current chair Daniel Zeichner.

The APPG plays an important role in ensuring that parliament—both MPs and members of the House of Lords—is fully aware of the issues facing higher education. I hope that my involvement with the group can help to maintain a focus on a sector whose continued success is vital at this critical time.

We know that universities are under huge financial pressures, along with an uncertain future surrounding the recruitment of international students, the welfare of existing students and the rapid transformation towards blended learning for next year. The ‘pan’ in pandemic is certainly making itself felt across universities globally, as they struggle to adapt to a perfect storm that affects nearly every part of the higher education model.

It seems a cruel irony that the institutions at the forefront of research into how we escape out of the coronavirus crisis are also the ones that will be most badly hit by its impact. That irony extends to how poorly we sometimes seem to value our universities: unlike workers in the NHS, university staff and teachers have gone unrecognised in the remarkable efforts that they have made over recent months, and they still face hostile stories in the press.

That question of value is one policymakers and government must now face up to. Do we believe that our higher education system and our universities, renowned abroad, are going to be valued at home?

We cannot simply pay lip service to ‘our world-leading universities’ without setting out how they must play a role for the future, and without creating a financially sustainable model of funding teaching and research that ends once and for all the curate’s egg of university funding, split across departments, both in Whitehall and on campus.

A long-term vision for what our universities are for, why they are needed and what they can achieve for the future is essential. Without it, universities will always be under threat from those who question the value of knowledge and its wider purpose.

A new settlement

That does not mean, however, that it should be the responsibility of government simply to bail out universities so that things can continue unchanged. The coronavirus has brought to the fore issues around finances, student experience and international mobility that simply can’t be put back again. We need a new settlement upon which both higher education and the government can agree.

I don’t want to discuss details of what that settlement should be; rather, I want to focus on the importance of establishing and constructing dialogue. It has long struck me that the binary relationship between higher education and government, conducted principally through the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, allows for traditional siloed thinking that fails to reflect the extensive contribution of universities to society.

In the post-coronavirus recovery period, universities have an opportunity to embed that contribution. Education will inevitably play an essential role in retraining and reskilling those who have lost their jobs in the economic downturn; the potential for higher education to create modular, ‘step-on step-off’ courses that blend with further education learning, and to establish new forms of training, is huge. But the wider importance of relationships and networks that universities bring together for the benefit of society should be better explored.

An obvious link is the one between higher education and the NHS, which should be strengthened where possible.

Then there is the significance of the massive uplift to public R&D spend—from £11 billion a year to £22bn by 2024-25. The government will wish to see how this leverages a doubling of private R&D over the same period, so university and business collaboration through the Knowledge Exchange Framework will be an essential part of the equation.

And the ‘civic university’ approach has massive potential to demonstrate and prove what universities can contribute to regenerating their local communities.

Much of this work is already underway at an institutional level, which brings me to my plea to institutions: just because you know it is happening, don’t assume that everyone else does. Don’t assume that because a glossy brochure exists it will be read, or that making an announcement will do all the work itself.

Campaign in poetry

Universities need to campaign in poetry, all of the time, making the case for their purpose and existence—most importantly at a local level, but joining this to a national strategy. And don’t wait for government to step in or just propose the case for taxpayer investment. Instead, demonstrate proven success and seek its scale-up. Treat the government like a venture capital investor and highlight what the return might be.

As Rachel Wolf, co-author of the Conservative manifesto in 2019, has written, the government’s priorities are clear—the voters it serves.

Make the case, then start at the beginning of how that case can be made again. Sometimes higher education can be a victim of its own success: those involved understand the importance of higher education and university, the transformative experience it brings to individuals, the research it undertakes, its importance to the economy and society, at a local, national and global level.

But that success isn’t felt by all, and it certainly isn’t known about by all. I passionately believe that higher education is the answer to many of our continued challenges—and the necessary consequence of having a more educated population who want to expand their minds and their opportunities, at home and abroad. But if we already know the answer, I’d suggest that we all need to get better at asking the question of why universities matter and what we can do to make them even stronger for the future.

Chris Skidmore was twice minister for universities, science, research and innovation between 2018 and 2020 and is now co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities.