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Nick Hillman reflects on meeting university leaders in person after a tricky year

It was wonderful to be back at Northumbria University in Newcastle for Universities UK’s annual conference. In part, this was simply because it was nice to be back on campus—any campus. For me, it was also because I have a soft spot for an institution that educated one of my sisters, my godson and Jony Ive. But mainly it was because the UUK shindig is always enjoyable and it is especially fun catching up with people you have not seen for over 18 months.

I started attending these get-togethers 13 years ago, when the conference was at Churchill College, Cambridge. Back in 2008, Gordon Brown was newly installed as prime minister, Lord Browne had not yet started his work on fees and UUK was run by a Labour peer.

Higher education has experienced profound change since then, whether you look at funding, student numbers or the research landscape. Its reputation has been battered somewhat, thanks to the culture wars—though more than one speaker at the conference pointed out the low salience of culture war issues with the general public.

On close inspection, however, universities have emerged from the intervening period with a strong record, if not always smelling of roses. This year, there is a higher proportion of school leavers wanting to enrol than ever before. No UK university has (yet) gone bust, defying predictions. And the Oxford jab and other innovations have put university research back on the public’s radar.

Positive stories

That positivity was evident from the main conference platform—for example in Steve West’s inaugural president’s address, which focused on the good as well as the challenging over the past 12 months.

It was also evident in a report that the Higher Education Policy Institute and Universities UK International jointly launched at the conference, based on research by London Economics, which shows that the net economic contribution of international students to the UK is £25.9 billion, including roughly £400 million from the three Newcastle-upon-Tyne constituencies.

A session on these results led to lively debate on whether the operating model of recruiting lots of international students to subsidise research has been squeezed as far as it can go, and also whether recruiting so many international students risks denuding the developing world of talent.

My response to the latter challenge was to point at other recent Hepi research on the high number of world leaders who were educated in the UK but who then returned to their home country. Many of these leaders now put their UK education to positive use by pursuing good governance and tackling global challenges, although I admit a small minority have turned out to be bad apples.

Gavins greatest hits

It is a UUK tradition that, at the dinner held the night before the education secretary’s address, the main gossip should be all about whether the minister will turn up the next day. Turn up he did, but virtually rather than in full 3D (prompting wry social media comments about the secretary of state being beamed in to deliver a speech on the virtues of face-to-face delivery). Given the late vote on social care and the intense reshuffle speculation, many of us may have made the same choice in his position.

Appropriately for the student union gig venue in which we listened to him speak, Gavin Williamson ran through his greatest hits: low-quality courses, free speech and the lifelong loan entitlement all featured. Aston, Bradford and Imperial College London were among the institutions that got a namecheck. Over coffee afterwards, some of those who listened in noted the lack of new policy announcements—although given the approaching spending review, it is not surprising that the secretary of state’s hands were bound.

Besides, there were some important announcements if you looked closely enough. On post-qualification admissions or applications, Williamson said: “I am determined to accelerate our plans.” Low-quality courses should not, he declared, “be able to be counted against a university’s access targets”. And there were promises of further reductions in “unnecessary bureaucracy”.

Calming nerves

The ability to compare notes at the start of the academic year always calms nerves, and that has never been as important as it is during the pandemic. Overall, the gathering was a successful experiment in how to return to in-person higher education events, and both the UUK team and those at Northumbria University deserve praise for making it happen.

Yet as we all departed Newcastle to fan back out across the country, many attendees will have reflected upon the many remaining ‘known unknowns’. What will the Research Excellence Framework results look like? How many international students will actually arrive? Will Covid spikes seriously disrupt the third academic year in a row? Will fees in England be frozen or cut? Can we stave off the return of industrial action? Why has train Wi-Fi not improved in the past 18 months?

I worry about all these issues too, but my overwhelming sense as I traversed the (fogless) Tyne was pleasure, because it was clear that nothing that has happened in recent months has done anything to diminish the commitment of university leaders to delivering for their students, staff and local communities.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.