Universities must fight back against muddled and “malicious” attacks to show that they are “forces for good in our world”, according to the new chief executive of Universities UK.
Alistair Jarvis’ first speech in the role, at CASE Europe’s annual conference in Birmingham, follows a summer of negative media coverage of universities, including criticism of vice-chancellors’ pay and claims in a Sunday Times story – which brought strong rebuttals from bodies including the Higher Education Funding Council for England – that universities were prioritising international recruitment over domestic.
In his speech, Mr Jarvis said: “While universities should certainly be scrutinised and held to account, much of this criticism has been based on little in the way of evidence or context. Indeed, some attacks have lacked any factual accuracy at all.
“We’ve seen a post-truth summer of misinformation, muddled argument and even a little malicious intent.”
He added that universities are institutions “delivering deep and lasting value to communities in all corners of the world”, but that they do have “some serious reputational issues that need addressing”.
It was “time for universities to address this crisis of confidence”, he continued.
There were “three big myths being peddled” that were “fuelling” this crisis of confidence, according to Mr Jarvis.
He identified these myths as the ideas that “getting a degree isn’t worth it”, that “universities are ivory towers, they do nothing for local communities” and that “universities are focused on international links to the detriment of local people”.
Mr Jarvis cited official data on graduate earnings, as well as on the social and health benefits of university attendance, adding: “Do not let anyone get away with the claim that there are too many graduates.”
And he cited further evidence on the community benefits of universities, via their training for doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs as well as their economic impact through their research and status as major employers; and on the financial and cultural benefits of international students in regional economies.
Mr Jarvis said universities must “fight back with evidence”, “develop compelling narratives about our positive impact” and “develop proper long-term engagement and build a shared understanding with our communities”.
Mr Jarvis’ rallying call also included an appeal to “promote our values as well as our impact”, an appeal likely to be seen in the context of Brexit turmoil.
“We must redouble our efforts to promote the values of openness, diversity, internationalism, freedom of speech, tolerance – that make British universities the envy of the world,” he said.