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Term’s over

Julia Buckingham reflects on her time as president of Universities UK and contemplates the future

When I succeeded Janet Beer as president of Universities UK in August 2019, I expected an eventful time, given the issues on the table and the turmoil in Westminster surrounding Brexit. It never crossed my mind that my presidency would be spent supporting higher education through the most challenging period it has faced since the second world war.

The collective goals of UUK members from the outset of Covid-19 were to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our students and staff; to do the very best we could to support our students and ensure that their education continued; to sustain our research and invest in tackling the pandemic; and to support the NHS and our local communities.

We have had to make some tough calls, and the twists and turns of the virus made for a non-stop journey of change. But despite the challenges and the ever-changing policy environment and sometimes confusing political rhetoric, we have continued to teach our students and to do research; our universities never closed. There is much for higher education to take pride in, and I have tried to use my position as UUK president to promote and protect universities in the media and in political discussions with ministers, advisers and parliamentarians. Never have we as a sector been so vital to these debates.

Successes and strains

Things changed for all of us in universities almost overnight: the transfer of education online; the adaptation to remote working; the extraordinary efforts of academic and professional services staff to support our students wherever they were (in halls or local accommodation or living at home, here in the UK or overseas); the brilliant research that led to the development of diagnostic tests, genomic screening, vaccines and treatments for Covid at an extraordinary pace; and the creativity of staff and students as they went the extra mile to support local communities and the NHS. But with these successes have come costs, both personal and financial.

We have all witnessed the tragic impact of Covid on individuals and families, and we have all been shocked by the social inequalities in our society that Covid has so cruelly exposed. The university experience has not been what our students wanted and, especially with limited opportunities for the social and extracurricular activities that are such an important part of university life, it has not been the experience we wanted to give them. Far too many have suffered personal difficulties such as financial hardship, loneliness and poor mental health.

Our staff—whether they have been working on campus or from home—have been amazing, stepping up to the challenges often at great personal cost as they have worked long hours, juggled caring responsibilities, postponed holidays and missed those human interactions that are so much a part of all our lives.

Understanding and mitigating the personal costs of the pandemic—for our staff and our students—has always been our priority. But for university leaders, the financial consequences of the pandemic have also been a serious concern. Universities have dug deep in their pockets to maintain Covid-safe campuses and to invest in digital systems, mental health support and student hardship funds, spending considerably more than in a ‘normal’ year as income from commercial activities plummeted.

Future priorities

As we emerge from the pandemic, what does the future hold for higher education? A priority should be ensuring that the UK government takes full advantage of what universities do for the economy and society as part of the aim to ‘build back better’ and level up. As the UUK #GettingResults campaign illustrates, we have a major job to do in supporting socioeconomic recovery, helping develop the skilled, adaptable workforce needed, driving business growth through research and innovation and supporting the public sector.

With universities in all parts of the UK, we understand the importance of ‘place’ and we already have many excellent examples of universities working side by side with local authorities, businesses and employers to support local and regional needs.

Few would deny the UK’s pre-eminent position in research and the positive impact of research on the economy and people’s lives across the globe. During the pandemic, we have seen extraordinary successes in translating research to public benefit and we have heard more about the government’s ambition for the UK to be a science superpower. Worryingly, though, the road to the target of 2.4 per cent of GDP being invested in R&D looks increasingly bumpy, with the loss of official development assistance funds, uncertainty around Horizon funding and enormous pressures on the Treasury.

Moreover, while the drive to deliver research with impact on the economy and to attract inward investment from businesses to this end is laudable, we must not lose sight of the importance of investing in fundamental science—the seed corn of the future. We must also continue to build global partnerships and collaborations in order to address global challenges such as climate change and health. And we must rise to the challenge of investing in people and infrastructure to create a culture, career structure and environment that make the UK the destination of choice for talent, both homegrown and from overseas.

Further challenges

With the outcomes of the Augar and admissions reviews pending and consultations in the pipeline on the Teaching Excellence Framework, measures of graduate outcomes and the lifelong learning entitlement, decisions made in the coming months about the future shape and funding of undergraduate education in England will bring further challenges. Worrying though this is, it also means opportunities to do things differently and vary our offering, using the strengths of a diverse sector to address the skills gap and meet evolving workforce needs.

Of course, many established university programmes are already vocational, providing a qualification that leads to a profession, while other programmes instil a range of intellectual skills that open the door to many rewarding careers. We have welcomed the introduction of degree apprenticeships and the opportunities to work more closely with further education colleges through, for example, the newly established institutes of technology. And we have long argued the case for part-time study and for more flexible opportunities for individuals to upskill or reskill as they progress through their lives and careers.

But to deliver this, we must have a viable and sustainable funding system. Of course, it is incumbent on universities to provide a high-quality education and broader experience for students and to prepare them for rewarding and successful career paths. We must also offer good value for money to both students and the taxpayer. But our income, whether through fees or government subsidies, must be sufficient to ensure that we can invest in our staff, learning resources and infrastructure; failure to do so will damage our students and their prospects and will ultimately harm the UK as we fall behind our competitors across the globe.

As I hand the UUK baton over to Steve West at the end of my presidency, I leave with a great sense of pride in the sector—in the staff and students in our universities, and our colleagues at UUK, who together have risen and addressed the many and varied challenges we have faced in the past two years and who stand ready for the future.

Julia Buckingham is vice-chancellor of Brunel University London and finishes her term as president of Universities UK this month.