‘Bruised’ universities can regain public confidence in 2018

Claire Taylor looks at how UK universities can rebuild trust and confidence as we enter a new year

January 2, 2018
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As I write, it is New Year’s Day 2018. The remnants of 2017 have already beaten a hasty retreat and, as with any new year, thoughts quickly turn to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

For universities, the challenges are not insubstantial, and have already been trailed. Inevitably, many will focus on the already well-rehearsed row over vice-chancellors’ pay, and on the rhetoric ensuring that value for money is secured for students. Then there is the ongoing financial uncertainty in light of the tuition fee freeze.These elements have combined to create a perfect storm, leading to accusations in the media that universities look out of touch and self-serving; that they have suffered some kind of identity crisis and now need to find a renewed sense of purpose.

So, how do we rebuild trust and confidence as we enter a new year? How do we renegotiate, identify and enact the renewed sense of purpose that is being demanded of us? I offer three starting points that may help the universities sector to leave 2017 behind and move through 2018 with renewed confidence and optimism. But be warned, this is something that can only be achieved through three-way collaboration between universities, the public and, I would suggest, the media.

First, to the public: an apology that, given what you read in the media, universities may have seemed somewhat skewed in their priorities (and even, perhaps, irrelevant at times). But please, give us another chance. 

There is so much good going on in universities that does not reach the headlines: the thousands of individual learners who are supported to achieve highly and succeed in securing excellent academic credentials and good employment prospects; the researchers who push the boundaries of knowledge, discovering new phenomena or innovative solutions to global problems; the professional support services that work hard to ensure that universities operate as effective businesses in the interest of public good; the community projects that support local and regional regeneration and the development of opportunities in hard-to-reach areas.

It’s hard to summarise in a short paragraph, but those of us who work in universities witness every day the positive, transformative work that goes on. Visit us to see for yourself and work together with us to celebrate the positives for the benefit of all.

Second, to the media: a plea for balanced reporting. I know that universities haven’t always been that great at providing the right sorts of stories, but please seek them out. It is the job of academia to provide an informed evidence base to support difficult discussions and decisions. So ask us for that evidence. Hold us to account, and challenge our views. In this way you, the media, play a key part in supporting broader public engagement with informed commentary.

This doesn’t have to be sensationalist global news related to high-end scientific discoveries (important though they are). It should also cover new insights and problem solving, or policy commentary at a local or regional level that helps individuals and communities to engage with the social, economic and cultural transformation on their very doorsteps. So please, work with us to recalibrate media reporting in relation to universities so that we can leave behind the tendency for surface sensationalism, and move towards deeper engagement with the local, national and global issues that really matter.

Third, to ourselves – the academic community – a call for courage, tempered with a measure of humility. Courage to stand firm when an evidence-based opinion is called for (and perhaps publicly challenged), and courage to reclaim the role of “expert”, which has been too easily relinquished in recent years. But we must do this without resorting to arrogant self-importance, which is how the role of the “expert” has tended to be perceived, at least in political circles.

We also need to be even better at communicating and connecting with the public and with the media, and that means not only acting in transmission mode by pushing out the great stories that we know are there, but also to be active listeners and receivers. Not an easy ask for the academic community, I suspect, but a respectful two-way communicative relationship is essential if we are to see public perceptions and attitudes change.

We all know that the year ahead will bring many known (and as yet unknown) challenges for universities. And to be frank, there is a feeling that universities are starting 2018 on the back foot, feeling bruised by difficult media coverage and a raft of sometimes incomprehensible government policy decisions. We also face some deep questions around purpose, accountability and effectiveness.

But imagine the creation of a powerful triune partnership of public, media and academia working together to re-establish trust and grow confidence in the UK’s universities. We can showcase and celebrate the profound local, regional, national and global worth of the higher education sector. It is possible, but only if we do it together. 

Claire Taylor is deputy vice-chancellor and professor of education at Wrexham Glyndwr University.

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