Universities must reflect on gulf between campus and community exposed by Brexit

Vote showed that when people think advancements are for the benefit of others, they think they have nothing to lose by rejecting them

September 12, 2016
Kirsty Williams

Welsh universities have much to be proud of, from high student satisfaction rates to attracting global talent and being recognised for innovation. But now is the time for them to recapture their civic mission by doing more to reach out to people following the fallout from the vote for Brexit.

I truly believe in our collective ability to shape a post-Brexit higher education system that is open, confident and innovative. In that spirit, I have set up a new Welsh HE Brexit Working Group, with sector-wide membership, to provide advice on the impact and possibilities of withdrawal from the EU.

At a UK level, the pro-EU campaign of universities was too easily dismissed as one of self-interest, almost exclusively focused on income. This is not to exempt politicians and government from criticism. But it is incumbent on universities to reflect on the distance between campus and community exposed by the referendum. The urgency of now is to recapture a civic mission.

It is a challenge that should engage hearts and minds. The vote showed when people think advancements are for the benefit of others – rather than for them, their families or society at large – they will think they have nothing to lose by standing against these.

Are we confident the communities that host our universities do not see those institutions as belonging to other people? Are Welsh universities rooted and responsible to their region and nation? How will they help address issues of social cohesion and informed debate in the years to come? These are challenges but also a call to recapture the spirit of our national education mission.

The task now is a Welsh higher education system that is accessible and relevant to its home communities. Our universities should be the source of robust thinking and debate, taking their place in the public square rather than retrenching behind institutional walls. Arguments about institutional funding are important, but they must not the sole focus of intellectual and policy discussion.

The referendum showed that our notions of togetherness and bonds between communities are perhaps weaker than we imagined. Accessibility to community can take different forms. There is much good work already, not least in the provision of part-time opportunities for study. But there is more to do on connecting campus – and higher education more widely – with our communities. Our universities must be “of” their place and their people as a first principle. It is from this stewardship that universities will fulfil their national, civic and international roles.

The best of Wales is a tradition of self-improvement and education leadership. Our education reform – at all levels – takes inspiration from these values. Working together we will get the basics right, raising standards and ambitions for all. It is not only schools that must deepen collaboration and mutual improvement. Our universities must also deliver on that national mission.

There have been positive developments in universities working with schools to share expertise in areas such as modern foreign languages and digital competency. From the pilot undergraduate mentoring scheme led by Cardiff, to Swansea’s use of computer science undergraduate students as teaching support in local schools, links are being made and are critical to a civic mission.

Universities have a direct role as teacher education centres, and John Furlong’s 2015 report on this topic is critical in reforming our teacher training courses and developing the skills teachers want and need. He also identified that not a single academic from any teacher education centre in Wales was returned for the most recent research excellence framework. That is not good enough. Only 1.5 per cent of total UK submissions in specialised educational research were from Wales. If researchers in Wales aren’t engaging with education reform here, then we can’t rely on universities elsewhere to do it. I’m not asking for cheerleaders, but a greater sense of inquiry in our educational environment.

I am keen to promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in our universities. Just look at Estonia’s development of technology across a range of public services, or Singapore’s encouragement of SME innovation. They demonstrate the role universities can play.

The number of active university start-up businesses in Wales has increased by 29 per cent this year, with 12 per cent of the total UK graduate start-ups and 15 per cent of UK staff start-ups. Let’s build on this together. 

Universities are critical in shaping the confident Wales that must emerge from these challenging times. Through research and recruitment they are a bridge to the wider world. Those bridges currently cross choppy waters, and government will work with universities to keep those bonds strong. I am confident our universities have the imagination to meet that test, and seize the opportunities ahead.

Kirsty Williams is education secretary in the Welsh Government. This article is based on a speech she gave at Cardiff University on 8 September

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