Leading higher education figures celebrate the best of 2021 and the potential of 2022
In search of new year optimism, Research Professional News asked university representatives and policymakers what the most positive thing to happen to universities was in 2021 and what they were most looking forward to in 2022. Here are their responses.
Steve West, president of Universities UK
Universities all pulled together and played a significant role in their communities. We continued to see huge contributions from universities in the research areas that have created better understanding as we roll out the Covid-19 vaccine, while our institutions also delivered ongoing support to essential scientific, technological and engineering research critical to the future of the world as we adapt to the pressures of climate change. Alongside outstanding work in public health, disease monitoring and behavioural and social sciences, this has ensured we have been able to play a full part in advising governments across the world.
We adapted and responded on our campuses not only to support staff and students to continue their work and study but also to develop new ways of working and collaborating that help to innovate, disseminate and spread best practice across universities. This has not only been seen in learning and teaching but also in professional and technical services that have adapted to deliver an excellent mix of online and on-campus provision to meet the rising demands of staff and students in respect of mental health and wellbeing.
I hope we will see a sector that is confident about continuing to do things differently and about innovating and enhancing through shorter and more efficient development cycles. I hope we will be more open to collaboration and partnership working across universities and the public and private sectors. I hope governments and the public will recognise how universities are transformational in what they do and how they impact individuals and wider communities.
Universities UK will be celebrating this work with further phases of our Made at Uni campaign this year. Universities are key to reducing inequalities—extending opportunities to all who can benefit, driving innovation and economic recovery through research, enterprise and development of a graduate workforce, and driving global engagement through all elements of our work across the world.
The Covid pandemic has shown us that when we focus and when we work together, we can change the world. However, this does require determination and laser focus on the issues while ignoring low-level noise and frustration in some quarters.
Alexis Brown, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute
It was incredibly impressive seeing universities take charge of how Covid was handled on campus. Universities proactively organised pop-up vaccination sites and implemented a wide range of measures to help incentivise students to get jabbed. Actions like this led to the university population being vaccinated at a significantly higher rate than the national average.
There’s a wide range of exciting initiatives happening in the space of national security and research. For example, new UK Research and Innovation-funded export control training will be launched, coming out of a partnership between Cranfield University and the University of Edinburgh. There’s also the launch of the Research Collaboration Advice Team at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which will help give universities advice on international research collaborations. These initiatives show how both the government and the sector are finding creative ways to work together to make research more secure.
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London’s Institute of Education
UK higher education institutions continued to powerfully attract students from the world outside the European Union, despite the pandemic and associated restrictions on travel and face-to-face educational experiences. The United States has been a less stable environment for educational migration, and entry into Australia was blocked for most of 2021, elevating the global position of the UK and also Canada.
The post-Brexit reduction in higher education mobility between Europe and the UK is the chief concern. This affects students at all levels of study and also flows of research talent. The best news we could have in 2022 would be the signing of the protocol guaranteeing UK participation in Horizon Europe, the ninth EU framework programme, as an associated country, on terms that would reward UK research on merit and encourage the inward movement of EU citizens working on UK-led projects, as well as the reciprocal movement of UK talent into continental Europe.
The second-best news we could have would be for the government to make one of its famous U-turns and rejoin Erasmus on mutually acceptable terms, as well as the UK maintaining its own programme designed to encourage two-way movement with the rest of the higher education world.
Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association
In an exceptionally difficult year for our sector, with unprecedented uncertainty, there were countless cases of joint working across institutions to support students and staff. Perhaps what stood out most of all for me was the way in which staff and institutions collaborated to support hybrid working. Despite the changes and challenges, many staff have valued some aspect of how they have worked during the pandemic—and they should feel proud of the fundamental role they have played in supporting students, delivering education and research, maintaining safe environments and mitigating the impacts of Covid-19.
Following the success of the extensive initial discussions across our sector, we will move into the next phase of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association’s national conversation on the future of collective pay bargaining. I am looking forward to deepening our understanding of what institutions really value about our bargaining arrangements, but equally important will be identifying what possibilities for improvement they want to explore. I also look forward to enhancing relationships, based on trust and mutual respect, with the higher education trade unions. Alongside this, Ucea will look at how we can support institutions to further enhance the employee experience, as well as developing holistic approaches to reward based on what staff in the sector value.
Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of MillionPlus
For me, one of the most positive things was seeing the return of students to campuses in the latter half of the year. Since I joined MillionPlus in August, I’ve been travelling around, visiting our member universities, and it has been great to see groups of students safely spending time on campus again and making the most of their student experience after such a long period of disruption. While we’re not out of the woods yet, I hope 2022 gives us a chance to move on from the worst impacts of the pandemic and consider what we have learned that we would like to maintain.
Universities are going to have a key role to play in helping the country to recover from the pandemic. Learning more about the opportunities that will be brought through the government’s ambitions for lifelong learning, as well as considering the role that universities can play in the levelling-up agenda, will provide opportunities to continue to demonstrate the importance of our higher education system.
Matt Western, shadow universities minister
The most positive thing was the tremendous work done by the many scientists and epidemiologists—the vast majority of whom are working in our brilliant universities—in developing an effective vaccine against Covid-19, finding new treatments to lessen Covid-19’s impact on patients and leading the way in genome sequencing.
I am most looking forward to seeing the greatly anticipated government response to the Augar review. It’s now more than 950 days since its publication, so we’ve all been holding our breath for a very long time. Equally, thanks to the tireless work of so many staff, researchers and academics, I am also hopeful about seeing a return to normality, with campuses bustling once more.