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Fork in the road

Vivienne Stern argues that universities face a turning point

For those who work in education, this time of year always feels like an opportunity for new beginnings.

And for Universities UK, our annual conference, which took place this month at the University of Manchester, is an important autumnal gathering. It is an opportunity to draw together the vast experience of our membership and set it to work on the challenges facing us all. Unusually for a gathering of higher education leaders, the mood this year was curiously upbeat, tending towards elation over the announcement of the UK’s association to Horizon Europe.

But it wasn’t just Horizon association that perked us up. I felt that we had reached a turning point: our sector faced a wall of challenges and we were determined to be active architects of our own solutions. This is precisely what UUK’s new strategy, launched at the conference, is about.

We called it A Common Cause because we can see that we need to work much more closely with our member universities, with our sector’s agencies and with all those with an interest in the future of our higher education system to meet the challenges we collectively face. But we also want to signal that we have an opportunity to make common cause with those whose interests are aligned with our own, who have a stake in the many things that our universities can do for the nation and the world.

Chance to thrive

Our strategy is profoundly influenced by an idea that was sparked for me by the founding purpose of the University of Aberdeen: to be open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others. In short, our mission should be drawn directly from those of the institutions we represent, and the purpose of UUK’s work should be to ensure that our universities are able to thrive—not out of self-interest but because the whole of society benefits if they do.

Our universities are a source of national pride. They contribute over £130 billion to the economy and support three-quarters of a million jobs; they are powerful agents of individual opportunity, with graduates about three times as likely to reach the top 20 per cent of earnings at age 30 than non-graduates.

They are essential to our public services, training hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses, paramedics and doctors. And in an era of lacklustre economic growth, which is making all of us poorer, research from the Department for Education found that “the increase in employment share accounted for by graduate and postgraduate qualifications” was the main factor making a positive and consistent contribution to productivity growth.

My point is this: universities matter. They matter not just to those of us who work in and around them, or to the millions of students who pass through their doors. They matter to every single person in the UK.

Choosing a path

It also matters whether universities get better over time or not. To me, it feels like we stand at a fork in the road. One path leads towards the slow decline of a once great system. The other leads towards a university system that goes from strength to strength—that evolves and innovates, increases the contribution it makes to individual opportunity, improves quality, contributes even more to growth and prosperity and does more to address the big challenges that face us all. Our job is to keep us on the second path.

Our strategy, therefore, will be relentlessly focused on how our universities can be better in the future than they are today. To achieve that, we need to turn around the direction of the line on funding of teaching and research, and arrest and reverse the way such funding is declining. We also need to do a better job of opening a window onto the things our universities do for society, and we must work patiently and over a sustained period to improve our universities’ public and political reputation.

But these things are not ends in themselves. Funding and reputation matter, because they will be the conditions that enable our universities to thrive in the pursuit of their missions—in education, research and knowledge exchange.

This task is emphatically not just about getting government to give us more money, although that will be necessary. It is as much about what universities themselves can do. We are already convening discussions on the opportunities offered by reconfiguration and digital transformation and exploring some of the common features that hold them back.

Thriving universities are in all our interests. That must be our mission.

Vivienne Stern is chief executive of Universities UK.