Political climate change is putting UK universities in hot water

As the government moves left on economics and right on culture, institutions must show the depth and breadth of their impact, says Sir Chris Husbands

June 21, 2021
A frog looking out of a saucepan
Source: iStock

There’s a very hackneyed story that used to be a staple of management training courses. If a frog (it’s always a frog) is in a saucepan of water that is gently heated, it doesn’t notice the change in temperature until it is too late to react.

UK universities may be more cognizant of the rising temperature, but too few seem willing or able to take the necessary leaps.

For 30 years, through the governments of Margaret Thatcher (who oversaw the first post-1960s phase of university expansion), John Major (who abolished the artificial binary divide between universities and polytechnics), Tony Blair (who set a target of 50 per cent participation), Gordon Brown (who gave universities their own department of state) and David Cameron (who abolished student number controls), universities have been a vital ingredient of government policy in England.

Peter Mandler’s 2020 book, The Crisis of the Meritocracy, shows that higher education expansion was largely driven by public demand. After all, universities are beacons of opportunity, opening up possibilities for individuals to realise their ambitions and creativity. The Millennium Cohort Study, for instance, found in 2008 that 97 per cent of UK mothers wanted their children to go to university.

Moreover, universities are engines of innovation and knowledge creation, playing strongly into the narrative that the 21st century demands knowledge-based economies. To quote an earlier prime minister, Harold MacMillan, UK universities “never had it so good” as in the 30 years following the 1986 Education Act.

In more recent times, a different story has emerged. No lesser figure than the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, has queried whether too many 18-year-olds are going to university. The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, has publicly abandoned the 50 per cent target and spoken in unhelpfully disparaging terms of students “graduating with nothing but debt”. Universities have also been condemned by a Policy Exchange report as monocultures, in which Brexit-supporting cultural conservatives feel uncomfortable.  And numerous newspaper columnists set the voices of an authentic England against those of the “metropolitan university-educated elite”.

As the government prepares its response to the Augar Review, far-reaching decisions are being mooted, such as fee cuts, new student number controls, minimum (and potentially high) entry requirements and more intrusive regulation. New legislation over freedom of speech has already been announced.

Lip service is still paid to the quality of the UK’s universities, particularly given our role in the Covid response, but you rarely come across a ministerial speech that doesn’t follow such praise with the word “but….” This is a remarkable turnaround.

The challenge for universities is not to position ourselves politically: we must remain neutral institutions in which a wide variety of ideas are explored and expressed. However, we do have to rethink our role in this radically changed political context. There are real challenges in some of what is being mooted: a cut in student fees, even if selectively focused on currently out-of-political-favour subjects, would significantly reduce the ability of universities to deliver a high-quality student experience – because the losses would have to be made up by cuts elsewhere.

At Sheffield Hallam, for instance, we have invested heavily in creating a sector-leading “student support triangle” so that every student has an academic, welfare and employability adviser. Even before the pandemic, we had also invested heavily in supporting students needing technological or financial support. These initiatives have pushed up our student satisfaction to over 95 per cent – but they need funding.

We need to reflect on the places where determined universities can make a difference. For the overwhelming majority of students, going to university remains the right choice: it gives them a foundation of knowledge, skills and experiences that prepares them not just for their first graduate job but for a career in a volatile and changing labour market – and for citizenship in a complex and diverse society. The global research tells us that graduates are more likely to earn more, but also to vote and to live long and healthy lives. But this argument on individual social return isn’t enough.

As the government has, crudely, moved left on the economy and right on culture, universities have to demonstrate the depth and breadth of our contribution and mobilise our resources in support of it. We must demonstrate our contributions to the future economy, not just in the areas of advanced technology, to which governments too often turn, but in the creative and cultural economy, on which a good deal of post-pandemic prosperity depends. And we must articulate the importance of universities to the development of places: those where we are already located and those to which we need to take our value.

There’s a danger that too many institutions languish in the increasingly hot political water, assuming that it will cool down again or lacking the flexibility to move quickly enough. If we don’t ensure we are seen as a critical part of building a more resilient and cohesive nation then we may – to borrow a technical term from management studies – croak.

Sir Chris Husbands is vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.

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Reader's comments (1)

This article does a good job of laying out the reasons for the current state of UK HE. Namely, great expansion and the deeming of every HE provider (whatever their background) as equal and named a university. I would hazard a guess that many of those asked in 2008 did not know what a university really was but viewed it as an extension to school. My parents were not graduates and despite their general knowledge of education, they really had little idea of the nature of its university form. A transformation should take place in HE that does not just entail bolting on skills to an otherwise unchanged person. University as defined when I was a student does not suit everyone as it is not primarily preparation for work. We need more education but not necessarily via the university route.