Think global, pitch national, pivot local

UK higher education is in robust shape, but it must be willing to build multiple bridges in 2022, says David Bell

十二月 31, 2021
A half-built bridge
Source: iStock

Yogi Berra, the American baseball legend, is famous for his “It’s déjà vu all over again” quip. If that feels like a good way of summing up 2021, then his “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” may be the watchwords for 2022.

But I will choose some of my own for the UK’s higher education sector: think global, pitch national and pivot local. That is a trifecta that can apply to all institutions, whether ancient or modern, pre-92 or post-92, specialist or generalist.

Thinking globally is more urgent than ever. The so-called grand challenges have become bigger and harder to crack. Yet the research done in our universities remains at the forefront of discovery and innovation in areas as diverse as life sciences, climate science and artificial intelligence.

The UK’s reputation in the creative arts and the humanities is the envy of the world. Small wonder, then, that the brightest and best continue to beat a path to our door. This is the reality of soft power, and we sacrifice it at our peril.

Even after two years of a pandemic and all the associated disruption to international travel, the appetite of students from across the world to come to the UK is undiminished. That is good news.

However, while our country remains the second most popular destination for international students, we face heightened competition from a resurgent US. Australia and Canada have also upped their game and are looking to garner a greater share of the market.

Despite the extraordinary work done in, and by, universities since spring of last year, our standing with too many national politicians and the media remains precarious.

So making our pitch nationally, in the corridors of power, remains an essential part of our business. Supporting higher education is not cheap, but we need to assert that, in the round, it is an investment and not a cost.

We cannot take for granted that everyone in Westminster shares our world view, and, equally, we should respect perspectives that do not accord with our own. In that respect, the pandemic has taught us important lessons.

Yes, science has changed our outlook immeasurably, thanks to the outstanding work done on vaccine development, never mind innovative new treatments. At the same time, the tone of some of those working in universities, and commenting in the media, could have been more empathetic.

Not everyone is on a secure salary, not everyone can work from home, and not everyone instinctively supports additional Covid-related restrictions, particularly when they are loftily demanded because of “the science”. A little humility, and more understanding of the lives of others, would not go amiss.

Pivoting locally is a great way for universities to make their case to those closest to them, whether they are individuals, businesses or public and voluntary sector organisations. Indeed, making the case for the civic role of universities has been one of the most positive developments of the past two years.

Now it needs to be given greater prominence because our work addresses economic, social, and cultural need in the places where we are located. The political winds are in our favour too as the government seeks to realise its ambitions to “level up” and recognises that universities can be part of the solution.

But there may be some headwinds coming. A third academic year overshadowed by the pandemic would test everyone’s patience. The government’s response – finally! – to the Augar review could be destabilising if badly handled. And what about a major geopolitical event or, more prosaically, the “tripwire” of wokeness provoking a major backlash?

These are risks, but my natural disposition is always towards the positive as UK higher education remains in robust shape. So, as 2022 beckons, we should strike a confident, but not arrogant, pose. We should not be shy about our virtues, but, equally, we must be open to criticism and willing to change in the light of circumstances.

Since March 2020, we have surprised even ourselves by showing a fleetness of foot and an ability to adapt, in no small measure because of the resilience of students and staff alike. That alone is reason to be cheerful.

But as Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Sunderland.



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