I once worked for someone whose job title was director of strategy and communications. He said that when he took the job he hadn’t realised that when something goes wrong it is always either a failure of strategy or a failure of communications and so he was always to blame.
I was reminded of this because something has been going wrong for universities over vice-chancellors’ pay and the value of a degree. The sector seems to have concluded that it is a failure of communications. Boiled down, the response looks like: “We’re worth it, and we just have to do better at explaining how marvellous we are.”
I think this is the wrong conclusion, and a change of strategy is needed. But the first and most urgent thing to do is to fix the tone. Universities and their leaders should show more humility.
I can see why universities might have made this response. Some criticisms from Lord Adonis were ill-informed or plain silly. Using the prime minister’s salary as a benchmark is a political stunt. It’s tempting to point all that out.
But just because your critics are wrong on some of the details doesn’t mean they haven’t got a point. And the point is the value that students get for the price they pay.
As far as people outside the sector are concerned, universities dodged the bullet of austerity. While other sectors dependent on public cash saw cuts, university funding for teaching went up – funding for the lowest-cost subjects increased markedly and, the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded, “the 2012 reform increased average university funding by 25 per cent”.
Yes, the gain has been eroded by inflation and by lost capital grants and funding for disabled students. And, yes, some of it went on improving access. But overall it was a funding settlement others envied.
Graduates paid. Part-time students paid, losing the chance to learn when faced by a loan system they didn’t see as appropriate or affordable. Liberal Democrat politicians paid with their reputations and careers.
But does misjudging the response matter that much? From time to time there is noise about universities. Eventually it goes quiet. Surely this will too? In this case, however, there are reasons to think it will not.
In recent years, the answer to how we fund higher education seemed settled. But the combination of government changes after 2015 that made loans less fair and less politically acceptable, and the political conclusions drawn about the general election result, means it is now anything but. We are facing questions about the value of what universities do at the same time as debating how we pay for them to do it. If we want the right answers then we need the public, as well as politicians, on side.
A lot is at stake. We have a diverse, internationally competitive higher education system with evidence of excellent teaching in every part of the sector. But that doesn’t stop policymakers and politicians wanting it to be better or more efficient, more accessible and inclusive, or more attuned to the labour market. And it doesn’t stop them believing they have the prescription to make it so.
This is risky territory, and to navigate it successfully, to avoid bad policy, universities need, as a minimum, to embrace transparency and accountability instead of looking as though they are being dragged reluctantly into the light. Public support requires belief that universities are spending public money well.
Defensiveness allows universities to be portrayed as the problem; as something that needs to be fixed by ministers and a vigilant regulator. And worse, it allows the government to claim that it is standing up for students. And this is a government that abolished maintenance grants, leaving students from the poorest families with the most debt. A government that reneged on its promises to raise the loan repayment threshold in line with earnings, hitting lower- and middle-earning graduates the hardest.
Universities need not only to embrace transparency and accountability but also to demonstrate they have done so. And, above all, put the student first. That is the first step to getting public support. It shouldn’t need an Office for Students to make the sector do that.
Gordon McKenzie is chief executive of GuildHE and was previously director of higher education in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (now BEIS).