Ministers’ narrow focus neglects major challenges, v-cs say

Too heavy a focus on skills training restricts universities’ role in the world, THE event hears

December 7, 2023

The UK government’s focus on skills training risks “narrowing” the view of higher education at home and abroad, sector leaders have warned.

Vice-chancellors told Times Higher Education’s THE Campus Live event that ministers did not appear to have a grasp of the scale of the challenges the sector is facing.

Speaking after the higher education minister, Robert Halfon, outlined his priorities for universities to the conference – including a renewed focus on degree apprenticeships and lifelong learning – Cara Aitchison, vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University, said the vision “feels to me to be fairly narrow”.

“Many of us have spent our careers developing our universities so they have a much wider role in the world,” said the vice-chancellor, who will step down in January.

“There is a much bigger role for our universities to play in influencing the world through our cultural diplomacy, our soft power. Through getting that work right, I then think we are in a much better position to develop the economy, the jobs, the skills, the degree apprenticeships; the kind of instrumentalist initiatives that will transform the UK and the wider world. That feels like the missing part of the jigsaw in the rhetoric.”

Mr Halfon said he foresaw five challenges facing the sector in the coming years, including his government’s higher education reforms, scaling up degree apprenticeships, implementing the lifelong learning entitlement and reskilling workers to adapt to artificial intelligence.

Dame Sally Mapstone, principal of the University of St Andrews and the current president of Universities UK, agreed that the challenges presented by the minister felt “quite narrow” and that most in the sector would outline different priorities.

“The challenges I would see the sector facing are, firstly, it is not helpful to have the negative talking-down of universities in terms of ‘rip-off degrees’ and so forth. That negative rhetoric doesn’t help us. We’ve got to address the issues that can exist, but that talking-down is not a great thing.

“The falling unit of resource we all know about…and international competitiveness: we’re all across the board seeing the challenges to us at the moment in terms of international student numbers.”

She said the sector felt that it had lacked “for some time” a long-term, clear shared vision with government and “that’s what we should be working hard with government and, to some extent, with the opposition to achieve”.

Asked about the prospect of a change of government – with the Labour Party being heavily tipped to win the next general election – Dame Sally said nothing was guaranteed but she thought there would be some changes.

“It comes down to [this]: do we think there are adjustments that can be made to the present funding structures, or do we think we need to start again, have a review and so on?” she said.

I think a review is risky because it pushes things further away and gives the sector more years to struggle with the underfunding at present.

“I think there needs to be – and there is – a good ongoing conversation with Labour now about the challenges to the unit of resource in teaching and research, so that the shared understanding of what the challenges are and what are the potential package of levers that can be pulled to adjust the situation for students – and for teaching and for research. That is the sort of work that needs to be done between now and when the Labour government comes in, if it does.”

Appearing on the same panel, Nishan Canagarajah, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, said it should be “clear to any person with basic economics to know that the current funding system is unsustainable”.

Reacting to potential changes in the immigration regime announced this week that could further affect universities’ ability to attract high-paying international students, Professor Canagarajah said he understood that there were issues with immigration and the desire to control it.

“But the biggest concern I have is the narrative,” he added. “We did a lot of damage to UK universities and their research through Brexit, and my biggest concern is that we are doing the same thing with the current rhetoric about our international position.

“If we are not careful, the UK education system will struggle globally to play its part because internationally the perception of UK universities is that they are not welcoming.”

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