An electoral agenda for universities

We must press politicians to show how a future government will support the sector, says Christopher Snowden

March 6, 2014

Worldwide, ambitious countries are investing in universities. We need that ambition to be matched by our own politicians

With the general election only 14 months away, we are already seeing the political skirmishes that mark the start of campaigning.

This election is likely to be won, or lost, on voters’ decisions about who they trust to run the economy. The Conservatives will want to focus on determined efforts to reduce the deficit and on the evidence of a growing economy; Labour on the “cost of living” and on the unequal distribution of growth.

Universities are central to the UK’s economic performance. They produce the highly skilled workforce and citizens of the future. Their research drives economic growth. They create jobs and innovation. If politicians focus on the importance of the economy, they must demonstrate that they can be trusted with our universities.

In the run-up to the election, we need to make clear why universities matter, and how they unlock human potential and are crucial to the success of business and public services. Their research generates technologies, materials and techniques that will solve global challenges and give the UK a competitive edge. They are a reason for companies to invest here. They are at the heart of our rich cultural and creative life. They are a major export industry in their own right. The argument must be made loud and clear – by universities and the millions of people who benefit from them.

Worldwide, ambitious countries are investing in universities. We need that ambition to be matched by our own politicians. If they back universities, they back the country’s interests.

We also have to persuade them that the idea that “more means worse” is dangerously anachronistic. The world has changed, and we need more and better higher education and research if we are to keep up. Our leaders must exude this ambition – just as those of our competitor countries do.

And they must put money behind that ambition. It is staggering that the UK remains the second strongest university system despite spending far less on it than our Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development counterparts – just 1.3 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with an average of 1.6 per cent. We are even further behind on research. It is naive to think that we will maintain that global position if we continue to underinvest.

The changes in the funding environment, the shift in the role of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the growing number of regulatory bodies mean that it is also time to review how the sector is regulated.

Throughout the election campaign, Universities UK will be asking politicians to set out how they will back universities to support their future success. We are suggesting that an incoming government do these things in particular:

  • Work towards a cross-party consensus on a sustainable system to fund student loans and support with a commitment that government will co-invest in the direct costs of teaching for the long term
  • Explain, in detail, how it will increase investment in research to a level commensurate with competitors such as Germany over a 10-year period and give us a fighting chance of remaining a premier research power
  • Seek to establish a regulatory system that reflects proper accountability for public funds but recognises the need for an efficient and integrated approach for universities, which are autonomous and generate much of their income from non-public sources. The student, paying fees, should be seen as a major stakeholder at the centre of the regulatory process
  • Give us backing internationally. Higher education earns the UK more than £10 billion a year, and there is considerable potential to grow. International students are good for communities, create jobs, are valued by UK business – and are popular, even with voters sceptical about immigration. We need clear targets to expand the number of international students in the UK. We must make it easier for them to work in the UK for a period after graduation. Politicians must remove international students from the net migration figures and provide a visa system that is simple for bona fide students to use.

We will look to each party to explain its vision: how it will ensure that universities are able to reach their full potential in supporting the UK’s national interests.

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