Universities UK needs radical reform

Recruiting a five-year, full-time president could transform the umbrella body’s ability to defend the sector, says Sir Anthony Seldon

March 14, 2019
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Universities in the UK have lost the country. If not the entire country, the elites at least have given up on us. Sometime earlier this decade, they began to see us – erroneously – not so much as the country’s most vital organs of innovation, economic drive, social cohesion and cultural energy as self-serving oligarchies.

Barely anybody in government has much time for us, foisting upon us the hapless teaching excellence framework, whose crude metrics fail dismally to grasp the value and point of a university education. And who knows what funding cuts the Augar review may impose on us?

Newspaper editors don’t get us either, and struggle to name a single vice-chancellor. Some university leaders do speak up for university causes in the media, but too many are afraid to do so for a variety of reasons, including being attacked over their pay.

Universities UK is not responsible alone for the state we are in, but a radically reformed version of it could be instrumental to redressing it. It has many existing qualities and excellent staff, but is no longer fit for purpose. It needs to become a high-profile, agenda-setting, proactive, ubiquitous and deeply respected powerhouse. It needs to get fierce and ugly at times, making politicians afraid of it by pouncing on their mistruths. Fear precedes respect – and willingness to change tack.

I know that UUK is already considering what it needs to do to become more effective. I suggest that it should bring in management consultants to advise on how to relate objectives to structure. But two points are already very clear. Its board needs slimming down and reorientating. And, above all, it needs much stronger executive leadership.

For all their undoubted qualities, UUK presidents currently struggle to make an impression on the centres of power. Their two-year term is too short to do so, especially since they simultaneously have to run their own universities.

What is needed is a full-time, professional president: a heavyweight who has been a proven success as a vice-chancellor and is able to give five years to the job. Working alongside the chief executive – who would in effect be the permanent secretary – the president must have skills in advocacy and presentation, promoting our cause on the national stage.

They must also have the wisdom to perceive what unites us as a sector, so as to hold our diverse factions together. At present, those factions are splintering.  Some look global, while others look vulnerable. But we will all lose if some of our most geographically and academically diverse universities go under or are forced into mergers.

Rather than being an association of vice-chancellors and principals, UUK needs to evolve into an association of universities, bringing together all non-profit institutions. It needs to provide leadership to the sector as well as for the sector, on issues such as unconditional offers and vice-chancellors’ pay, reminding us that we ourselves – not the Office for Students – are the custodians of students’ interests.

The 140 trade sectors that make up the CBI are far more diverse than the university sector, yet that doesn’t prevent the CBI punching hard nationally with its own common cause. It is pointless complaining that the Russell Group leaders are semi-detached and self-serving. UUK needs to be so influential that everyone wants to actively participate.

It needs to get right up the backsides of Whitehall, Parliament, Fleet Street, broadcasters and leading interest groups, organising regular breakfasts, lunches and dinners for groups of people from these spheres, allowing them to talk and listen to us. We should also be introducing them to our leading academics, who have important things to say and research to share, facilitating their appearance on influential current affairs programmes.

All this will need to be paid for, of course. The rich universities will have to pay much more than they currently do. But they can afford it, and will arguably benefit the most from a much more benign climate. We must, at this moment of jeopardy, work together as never before in our history.

Sir Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. This is an edited version of a blog published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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Reader's comments (1)

From the man who wisely introduced happiness lessons at Wellington College, this is appalling language.

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