A message to Boris: help us to unleash the full potential of UK universities

Universities must face up to some legitimate complaints, but they can also play a key role in helping the new government meet its ambitions, says Alistair Jarvis

December 19, 2019
Alistair Jarvis

Last week’s general election result means that the UK finally has a single-party government with a sizeable majority. Could this signal a break from populist short-termism and introduce a greater focus on the future? Time will tell. What is certain is that with any new government comes change and new opportunities.

While universities did not feature prominently in the election campaign, this does not mean that they are not in the government’s sights. With a likely March budget, followed by a spending review and the unfinished business of the Augar review, the uncertainty of the UK’s future relationship with Europe and the promise of a new immigration regime, there are critical policy debates ahead. 

We already know some of the challenges – and criticisms – the government will put to universities. Some of this is driven by a political environment in which many major institutions – the BBC, global charities, even parliament itself – are being subjected to, what often seems, unfair criticism, grounded in populism rather than fact. However, we should recognise that there is also legitimate challenge on issues of real public concern that universities need to tackle head-on with sector-led solutions. Otherwise, we risk inviting heavy-handed regulatory interventions or punitive funding reform.

Questions about the value of a university degree are likely to be prominent. We must be able to show clearly the value of all of our courses to individuals, society or the economy beyond salary outcomes.

Genuine grade improvement – from enhanced learning and better student support – should be celebrated. However, there’s no doubt that grade inflation has dented employer and public confidence in students’ achievements. The sector has recently designed and implemented firm measures to address this.

We will also need to improve the application and offer-making system to accelerate the narrowing of the gap between admission of students from the most and least disadvantaged backgrounds, and to ensure it operates in students’ best interests. The reintroduction of maintenance grants for the students who need them most would help widen access and improve retention.

I hope the new government will recognise the huge benefit of working positively with universities to fulfil its ambitious plans to increase productivity, harness and develop skills for the industries of the future, and support the people and communities who feel left behind. The UK’s universities can be key drivers of achieving all of those ambitions.

The UK’s place on the global stage is about to be challenged by Brexit. UK universities are highly globally connected; we can be magnets for inward investment, drive our education export potential and be at the forefront of building international collaboration and influence. Speeding up progress towards investing 2.4 per cent of GDP in research and development will allow universities to generate new ideas and knowledge to benefit our economy and society.

A long-term, sustainable funding settlement will help us ensure the highest quality of teaching and the widest possible access, offering adult learners more studying options – including new partnerships with colleges and employers that bring world-class education and training to communities where it currently doesn’t exist.

If Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants a thriving UK, he must champion and support our universities to unleash their full potential.

Alistair Jarvis is chief executive of Universities UK.

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