Universities are grappling with a range of unprecedented challenges – many are issues over which we have little or no control. Of course we worry about these issues, but at the University of Essex we are working hard to ensure that this does not overwhelm us, by focusing on what we can control and choosing carefully where we can focus our energy. This means regularly revisiting our founding mission to ensure that we do all that we can to deliver excellence in education and research for the benefit of individuals and society. In doing so, we want to be daring, impatient for change and ensure that our university meets the needs of our time.
With the creation of new universities in the 1960s, public confidence in the value of a university education was rising. Increased access to higher education promised exciting opportunities for people who had previously been excluded from higher education, not for want of ability or potential, but because of background. Access to a university education as a means to unlock potential and transform communities inspired a campaign for a new university in Essex and moved people to give generously to its establishment. In return, the University of Essex made a commitment to be equally committed to education and research – a university for the real world, and a university concerned not only with the pursuit of learning, but with the fulfilment of lives.
We are a dual intensive university committed to offering transformational education and research. Other universities have privileged research at the expense of education, or education at the expense of research – and some are prepared to pay only lip service to social mobility. If the type of university that Essex represents is to be cherished and not just tolerated, we have to respond to three challenges.
First, we need to redouble our effort to demonstrate that we offer real benefit for people and communities, particularly those facing social, economic, political and cultural challenges. For us, the promise of higher education as a public good means that we must live up to a dual challenge of ensuring fair access and outstanding outcomes for students from every background. It means encouraging students from under-represented groups to go to our university, so that we can be seen to champion sharing the benefits of higher education.
At Essex, 41 per cent of our UK students come from households with an income of less than £25,000 a year, so it is no surprise that we are the most socially inclusive university in the top 30 of The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide – rightly a source of great pride to our university community.
But fair access is only one step towards a more equitable distribution of the public good of higher education. We must also ensure that every student has an opportunity to achieve outstanding outcomes regardless of socio-economic background, gender or ethnicity. While the teaching excellence framework has its flaws, it is the only serious attempt by the government to understand and benchmark added value. Retaining our TEF gold rating is key to assessing our progress and demonstrating our commitment to social mobility.
Second, we must ensure that our research continues to ask difficult questions, to challenge conventional wisdom, speaks truth to power and makes a positive difference to people’s lives. For us, this means supporting research that tackles with rigour the questions that matter for people and communities and that seeks out solutions and puts ideas into action through a commitment to making the world a better place.
To support this, we must continue to do well in the government’s assessment of research quality, in securing external funding such as knowledge transfer partnerships and financial support for training PhDs who will be the next generation of scholars. We must also continue to champion academic freedom within the law, which can never be taken for granted.
Finally, we must continue to make the case for dual intensive universities in UK higher education – for a strong link between transformative education and research. We need to champion the benefits of world-leading scholars teaching students. This type of education provides a range of skills that support graduates to thrive in a changing employment landscape and through social and community engagement helps to solve societal challenges that matter. We must continue to make the case to the government that if it wants universities to excel at both education and research, then it must play its part in nurturing the delicate ecosystem that is required to deliver it.
We are self-critical about whether we are being brave enough and imaginative enough in pursuing this agenda, but you would be wrong to think that the scale of the challenge keeps us awake at night – it does not. But day in, day out, it is what gets us out of bed in the morning.
Anthony Forster will be part of vice-chancellor question time at THE Live Thursday, 29 November 2018.
Anthony Forster is vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, and Lorna Fox O’Mahony is deputy vice-chancellor (designate).