Sally Hunt: Time to get our act together

Call to put differences aside, ahead of UCU Congress in Brighton

May 28, 2013

It’s a frequently made point that higher education’s divided lobby is a key factor in the sector’s failure to punch its political weight.

While mission groups, the student lobby and - yes - trades unions have pushed sectional interests, successive governments have reengineered our sector and starved us of funding.

This message was brought home to me recently when, at a meeting in Downing Street, a government advisor let slip that we, the University and College Union, were being squeezed in between four other higher education acronyms - all meeting separately to press different priorities.

That is why earlier this year, more in hope than expectation, I wrote to 50 organisations across post-16 education urging us to hold our noses and form a common front to promote the social and economic benefits provided by universities and colleges.

The lead up to the government’s spending review in June has brought even greater clarity to the need for unity of purpose.

Instead of a common cause, different groups have publicly debated which funding stream - whether that supporting widening participation, science or vocational education - the government should cut in order to save the rest.

Such manoeuvring only helps the axe man by creating an orderly queue of victims.

The facts are simple: UK spending on tertiary education is well below the OECD average of 1.6 per cent of gross domestic product, currently at 1.3 per cent; direct UK government expenditure on research and development remains one of the lowest in the industrialised world at 0.17 per cent; and the UK has between 2000 and 2013 fallen from third to fifteenth among the top industrialised nations in terms of our graduation rates.

To use the current political parlance, whether you want to “win the global race” or indeed create “one nation”, you need education.

For politicians this means aspiring to be what Australian campaigners call “a clever country” and recognising the importance of investment. For those of us who form the “divided lobby” it means finally getting our act together.

That is why I am delighted about the formation of the “Knowledge Economy” campaign by those who responded to my original letter.

The campaign already includes the main representative bodies of academics and students, six employer lobby groups, a dozen subject associations and campaign groups as well as 700 individual supporters.

Our first task is to recognise the diversity of our interests but also our commonality and to agree a united position.

The fruit of that is an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons calling for recognition of our contribution and greater investment so we can do still more.

In the long term we need to learn from others and project a united front.

The current ringfencing of health and school spending, for example, owes much to the lobbying skills of those sectors, an ability, particularly in health, to work together and the connection both make with the wider community.

We are not as good at that in higher education. Even as participation has increased, many people still see the local university as “the place on the hill”.

It is that disconnect with the local community that allowed the former education secretary Alan Johnson to argue incorrectly but successfully that free education meant the subsidy of the rich by the poor.

Aside from the positive societal benefits of higher education, we need to make the case to people in university towns and cities that their local institution really is part of the community.

The impact that universities have locally, not least by creating jobs and revenue, stretch far beyond the confines of campus.

We have an overwhelmingly strong argument. As a recent Universitas 21 report showed, while the UK may be ranked 24th in international higher education systems in terms of resources, it is second when it comes to output. Our universities and colleges are societal goods in themselves, but are powerful drivers for economic growth too.

There will always be legitimate differences between organisations such as UCU and the National Union of Students on the one hand, who represent staff and student interests, and those who represent institutions on the other.

But with Knowledge Economy, some of us have taken the first, tentative steps to working together in the common interest. For education’s sake, come and join us.

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