Regional universities in the UK cannot be allowed to fail

Universities have shown that they can come to the rescue of our country in a crisis. We must protect them as vital local and national resources, says Emma Hardy

April 30, 2020
Source: iStock
Sheffield city centre

Our UK universities are world class; the University of Oxford is the highest rated university in the world and three UK universities are in the top 10 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. UK qualifications are held in high esteem and our universities continue to attract the second highest number of international students globally. As the UK establishes itself as a nation independent of the EU, those connections will be more important than ever.

However, domestically, our universities can be seen as remote and disconnected, concerned mainly with increasing revenue by attracting ever higher numbers of students.

This impression perhaps explains why the statement by the head of the Office for Students, Sir Michael Barber, in November 2018 that “Should a university or other higher education provider find themselves at risk of closure…We will not step in to prop up a failing provider” passed with little protest from communities where universities reside.

This perceived lack of support from the general public no doubt allowed the Treasury to feel confident in dismissing the recent proposals from Universities UK for a comprehensive £2 billion support package to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus epidemic.

I think it would be fair to say that the universities have been slow to see the value in promoting their worth to their local areas, but the current crisis is now shining a light on the vital role they play as anchor institutions in their local communities and economies. When the recent London Economics paper on the “Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on university finances” predicted that a total of 60,000 jobs could be lost in the sector, over half of those jobs were not direct employees but were from local businesses.

This might seem obvious – you only need to speak to the local taxi companies, for example, to hear the benefits having students brings, or to think about the impact on the local hospitality trade, private landlords, retail and high streets – but it goes further than that, especially in the north of the country.

Our universities are one of the few large employers offering graduate-level jobs with graduate incomes in the region and a loss of these opportunities will only encourage a “brain drain” to the south and further exacerbate regional divides.

As we stand and clap our key workers every Thursday at 8pm, it would be difficult to find someone in the country right now who wasn’t grateful to all the health professional students who are working on the front line against this virus. The University of Leeds is fast tracking more than 1,000 final year medical and nursing students into the NHS; the University of Huddersfield has provided more than 400 dedicated nursing and midwifery students and health tutors; and the University of Hull is providing training for former NHS staff who are rejoining the workforce.

But universities have done more than just supply personnel; they have been helping with manufacturing personal protective equipment and testing. The University of Hull is laser cutting face shields for healthcare workers, aiming to produce more than 20,000 per week. The University of Huddersfield has been talking to local manufacturers about manufacturing requirements for ventilators. Scientists at the University of Sheffield are using their skills, laboratories and equipment to help with clinical testing and the University of Bradford has shipped large amounts of ethanol to local health services to use as hand sanitiser.

Our local universities are helping us move forward and out of the lockdown. Scientists from the University of Sheffield have worked with the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals virology team to provide evidence to understand how the virus is spreading and changing. Meanwhile, S.S. Vasan from the University of York is to be the principal investigator in research to help determine the characteristics of the coronavirus and to test new potential vaccines.

There is little doubt that our economy will face a tough recovery from the financial impact of the virus and as yet we don’t understand the long-term impact on the job market. We do know that mature students are much more likely to be commuter students, so any decline in the number of universities or the courses they can offer in Yorkshire and Humber will impact on the opportunities local people have to retrain and reskill following the pandemic.

It would be grossly unfair to have a situation where people living in Yorkshire did not have the equality of opportunities available elsewhere.

I do not believe that the London Economics research forecasting a loss of £2.5bn to universities through the widely predicted fall in student numbers is scaremongering. It does not take account of other income losses such as accommodation or conferencing and is based on a relatively optimistic view of the recovery. It is backed up by last week’s analysis by the Office for Budget Responsibility which identified higher education as the sector likeliest to take the hardest hit from the crisis.

During this crisis our universities have shown that they are prepared to adapt and react, to come to the rescue of our country. The government must be proactive in protecting what is a vital local and national resource.

An approach of waiting for individual institutions to be on their knees before they can come to the government with a begging bowl is simply not good enough and will result in failure. We need our universities: we need them to contribute to our economy, to retrain and upskill us, to provide the research and solutions to the problems we face.

But they need us too. Now is the time for us to show our universities the same support they are showing us, and to ensure they will be there to provide that same support for generations to come.

Emma Hardy is the MP for Hull and shadow universities minister.

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