HE ‘relevance’ hinges on ability to ‘speak to new Tory voters’

Co-author of Conservative manifesto says universities’ ‘prosperity depends’ on grasp of changes since 2010

July 7, 2020

The “relevance” of English universities will depend on their ability to “speak to” the Conservatives’ new electoral support in towns, according to the co-author of the party’s last manifesto, while a former Tory universities minister has called higher education scepticism the party’s “new Euroscepticism”.

Rachel Wolf’s comments at the University of Buckingham’s virtual Festival of Higher Education came alongside a warning from former minister Jo Johnson that student number controls introduced to mitigate the Covid-19 crisis would remain in the longer term, standing as a “spectacular own goal” by universities that lobbied for such controls.

Ms Wolf, who started her career as an adviser to Boris Johnson in his time as shadow higher education minister and co-wrote the Tory manifesto as a partner at policy consultancy Public First, addressed the question of why universities “feel they are out kilter” with the Conservative government’s direction.

She noted that many in the sector were “worried” by the tone of universities minister Michelle Donelan’s speech last week, as well as by “what might happen with Augar” (the government’s review of post-18 education, on which it is yet to offer a final response).

She emphasised the huge changes within the Tories since the advent of the Cameron government in 2010, as well as the changing position of the higher education system since then, such as the contrast with a further education system whose funding has been cut dramatically by Conservative-led and Conservative governments since 2010.

The Tories’ new electoral coalition was “fundamentally different” to that of the Cameron governments, she noted.

Post-Brexit, Tory supporters are now “much more likely to be in towns where there are colleges but no university”, to be “taxpayers who have helped fund universities but haven’t personally benefited from them”, said Ms Wolf, who wrote last year’s Civic University Commission report.

But she also emphasised that the new government had introduced “far more substantial” increases in research funding than the Cameron governments, seeing that without these increases leading to increased innovation “the country cannot grow…places cannot grow…and that [increased research-led innovation] is impossible without universities”.

Ms Wolf said of universities: “Their relevance depends on the extent to which they are able to speak to and for this new electoral coalition.”

This meant, she argued, that universities’ “civic agenda has to become ever more real”; that the “language and substance of R&D…must be as tangible as possible”; universities should “avoid the culture war like the plague – easier said than done”; and that higher education provision must “become dramatically more flexible as a means of delivering some of the government’s aims”.

The “landscape has changed” in the past 14 years and “universities’ prosperity is going to depend on the extent to which they can fit into that change”, she added.

Asked by Sir Anthony Seldon, the Buckingham vice-chancellor, for further details on some of her points, Ms Wolf said that while she did not think there was yet a model for “levelling up” funds to support universities’ civic activities, it was “perfectly possible” there could be.

On culture wars and universities, Ms Wolf said: “I think the danger is that most people in the country…don’t really want to have a massive battle over the next five years on these issues. They don’t actually want to get out of bed and talk about transgender [issues], to give a completely random example.”

But she said that if such issues are “forced into the core national debate, there is then a gulf between what a lot of people in and at university believe, and what this core electoral battleground believes”.

Mr Johnson told the event that scepticism about the value of higher education “is the new Euroscepticism on the Conservative benches”.

But he went on to say that this scepticism came not just from the “usual suspects” who led the push for Brexit within the party, making this “more worrying” for the sector.

He suggested that temporary student number controls would in fact be in place in England “next year and the year after and the year after”. The sector had made an error in lobbying for such controls, as they give “higher education sceptics” the “tools” they need to “limit the growth of the sector in future years”, Mr Johnson added.

“Providers of social sciences courses and arts and humanities courses” should be most worried, because it was unlikely this government would “free up” any additional places or funding for those subjects, and would instead channel those to STEM subjects, he argued.

More generally, Mr Johnson said that on issues such as graduate job outcomes and earnings, “the whole narrative around our universities has gone completely awry post-Augar” and is now “completely bonkers”, with graduates viewed as “complete losers” economically when in fact the average earnings benefits to graduates remain strong.

The narrative was “completely divorced from reality in a really worrying way and the sector needs to get a grip on it,” said Mr Johnson.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (5)

Nice to see three Oxbridge graduates discussing the fate of the great unwashed
None of this should be a problem for those who truly wish to offer university education, only to those who wish to present low-level work masquerading as such. The madness of a 50% target is hopefully behind us and we can put funding into vocational courses, which have been the missing link in the UK system.
Take a look at most Universities and it's the not University educated (indoctrinated) staff that keep the place running, cleaners, plumbers, electricians and more, in some it's gotten so hard to recruit 'skilled' trades staff they have to pay a market premium supplement, which shows the Hera and more over Hay grading schemes as being biased towards 'admin' type roles and that compared with industry trades staff are significantly underpaid, unlike most VC's and senior managers. Outsourcing or using contractors is short termism at best, and see's more money leaving the University than paying for staff who build up site and systems knowledge that leads to longer term savings, invest in ALL staff, training trades apprentices using vocational courses and FE providers isn't that difficult, is it?
I totally agree with the analysis above and support any campaign for "Universities to get Real." It appears many Russell Group members and Oxbridge are out of touch with the public and far to insular. Mainly interested in having an ever bigger tax payer funded pie so they can take a bigger piece. The business model is now broken. We have at least 3 very different types of institution all called Universities. One policy will not fit all. We need specific policies, strategies and funding plans appropriate for each group and transparency on spending that is on research, on undergraduates and on postgraduates. We need to be honest about University hierarchy, accept that some institutions will always be selective and for the elite and not every institution needs to do research or offer every course. The future should still be about excellence but linked to local area, regional, national and international reality. We need more places like Bolton and closer involvement with Further Education. We need a more appropriate structure to deliver education, skills, learning and personal development and an acceptance that the hierachy is pyramid shaped.
Is the tail wagging the dog here? Politicians, irrespective of party affiliation, are elected to serve the needs of the nation and its citizens, not to be pandered to by citizens and institutions. Education, at whatever level, is about transforming empty minds into open, enquiring ones. Those whose minds are so transformed are prepared to enter employment as versatile contributors capable of acquiring job-specific knowledge as and when they need it. Many people do not work in the narrow subject area of whatever degree they took, but use the ability to think and to learn that they acquired during university study to adapt to whatever they end up doing. (I'm a case in point, my first degree is in botany but I have earned my keep as a computer scientist both commercially and now in academia!)

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