‘One Nation’ university vision wants a Birkbeck for every region

Hepi-published paper argues sector is ‘victim of, and has actively participated in, polarising culture wars’, while those ‘rooted in their local communities’ have been neglected by expansion

December 9, 2021
University of London in Bloomsbury as described in the article
Source: Alamy

Political shifts in England require a new vision for a “One Nation University” that “removes the sharper edges of the market to ensure fairness for non-traditional students” while foregrounding place, and that promotes “thought diversity in a time of division”.

That is the argument set out by Richard Brabner, director of the UPP Foundation, in a paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute on 9 December.

With a “post-liberal” turn in the modern Conservative Party prioritising a shift “away from individualism and freedom towards community and control”, the report uses the One Nation concept of “supporting all parts of society” traditionally articulated by some Tories in its “attempt to bridge the gap between advocates of a post-liberal society, including within the ruling Conservative Party, and the higher education sector, which continues to do so much good”.

“The threat of shifting funding from universities, ongoing concerns around reimposing student number restrictions and/or minimum entry requirements and various interventions on cultural issues all suggest post-liberal narratives are powerful and are shaping the debate about the sector’s future,” writes Mr Brabner, formerly head of policy at the University of Hertfordshire and a member of staff for two Conservative MPs.

While higher education expansion has brought economic, social and community regeneration benefits and “we have liberated the choice and freedoms of some students, it has been at the expense of other people who are rooted in their local communities”, he says. “Instead of being a bulwark against division, the sector is both a victim of, and has actively participated in, polarising culture wars.”

The report calls for graduates to face higher loan repayments to balance the needs “of current students, future students, graduates and taxpayers”; while there should be “a flexible tertiary sector which fits around the lives and choices of all learners”, including a “Birkbeck-style evening university in every region of the UK”. And the government “should create a director or office for higher education and place”, to “fund new provision and intervene in the market when institutions are negatively impacted by market forces beyond their control”.

Meanwhile, on the culture wars, the paper says that when involved in “cultural clashes”, universities “should develop an ethical framework and create local citizen assemblies to work out how to respond to them”.

“Led by the higher education sector and with support from the government, an organisation like the Heterodox Academy in the US, which supports viewpoint diversity and pluralism, should be established,” the paper adds. “In addition to providing useful resources and tools, it could develop leadership training programmes and consultancy on recruitment and progression practices.”

Mr Brabner terms this a “One Nation University” agenda, “which removes the sharper edges of the market to ensure fairness for non-traditional students, graduates and taxpayers…which promotes civility, civic engagement and thought diversity in a time of division…which strengthens community, on and off campus, to the benefit of all”.

But should universities fundamentally change their outlooks in response to ideological shifts within the Conservative Party?

Mr Brabner told Times Higher Education that it would be “a mistake to think universities can ignore these issues”. His paper, he said, aimed to propose “a way universities can thrive in this new era”, which would require the sector “to recognise the gap in its offer and how it is perceived by the working classes and those who do not share its liberal orthodoxies”, and for policymakers “to understand the huge potential universities have to spread opportunity, support the revitalisation of local communities and bring the nation together after a turbulent few years”.


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Reader's comments (1)

Fully supportive of the evening university, building on the Birkbeck Programmes but also building on the Extra Mural, Continuing Education programmes that were offered by Civic Universities, often with links to the Trade Unions and Local Education Authority Adult Education programmes. The notion of education for social purpose is also fundamental to reconnecting people to their communities and the benefits of continuing education.