The headline-grabbing resignation last week of University of Bath vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell after intense opprobrium over the size of her salary was another sign of how far UK universities have slipped in public perception in recent months. So, what can we do to redress the situation?
If we believe that higher education is a force for good, we must make every effort to explain ourselves to the widest possible public. That obvious point has been made more than once recently. But to conclude that the attacks are merely the result of an ill-informed public, a mendacious media or tawdry politicians – as some UK vice-chancellors have done – risks providing further ammunition for those characterising university leaders as overpaid, arrogant and out of touch. The real danger is that even if wider society knew all the benefits of higher education as precisely as vice-chancellors do, we might still have little support.
If we are truly self-reflective, we might plausibly conclude that we’re on the wrong side of history. For the past two decades or more, universities have been defining themselves as archetypal internationally orientated organisations, producing globally facing graduates with borderless skills. This is at odds with the resurgence of nationalist populism, polarisation and protectionism, fuelled by sentiment rather than fact.
This is an even worse predicament than being misunderstood because it cannot be resolved simply by more rigorous communication. It is more fundamentally that the widespread resentment of existing authorities, in the form of multinational corporations, banks, the media, politicians, experts and so on, extends to higher education, too. Massification of the sector has made it less elitist in terms of the number of students it admits, but it has also made it more visible to those it excludes – and, hence, has only stoked their resentment.
In response, we must accept a need to change. We must accept that society at large, via its elected leaders, has a right to question our conduct and point to problems. We perhaps need to whisper it, but sometimes the politicians even have a point. While there are examples of success, we can be atrocious at acting together to resolve our problems. For instance, despite widespread concerns about degree classifications and attempts (such as the Higher Education Achievement Report or grade point average) to offer a response, we have consistently failed to implement a sector-wide scheme that addresses a legitimate public interest in the comparability of awards between institutions and over time. It is precisely because what we do is so valuable that we have an obligation to address issues such as this, rather than dismissing them as unwarranted intrusions into academic and institutional autonomy.
Only once the need for change has been accepted in principle can we agree what changes are required. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But improving our image probably needs to start at a local level. We need to extend our existing efforts to be good neighbours and work in partnership with local authorities and businesses on boosting local growth and quality of life. We also all need to be truly accessible to our local population, for study and other purposes.
Resurgent nationalism is fuelled by a sense that an elite class is benefiting from opportunities that are more generally unavailable: a good way to combat that would be to demonstrate that every university, no matter how elite, is engaged in delivering benefits to every part of their local community. That means recruiting locally from the full spectrum of abilities – using as much effort as we do to recruit students from across the planet – and ensuring that we support all students through their courses to successful completion.
I am not suggesting that we give up on the things that we hold dear: just that we evolve to come to terms with the needs of a very different world from the one that we’ve been used to. The good news is that although we are sometimes slow and unsure in doing so, UK universities are good at evolving. We have a centuries-long track record to prove it. We can, once again, take the kernel of what makes universities such special places and reinvent that spirit for a new age.
Matthew Andrews is university secretary and registrar at the University of Gloucestershire. He writes in a personal capacity.