University Alliance > Blog > The sector’s long-term health has to be at the forefront of our thinking

The sector’s long-term health has to be at the forefront of our thinking

Professor Steve West
Published on September 11, 2012

Professor Steve West by Martin Chainey

As I start my term of office as Chair of University Alliance, we see the initial impact of the reforms to higher education begin to work their way through.

Students are starting university under the new student finance system and admissions numbers are varying across the sector – with no obvious pattern emerging. We (our colleagues and students alike) are all learning about the new higher education market as it emerges.

It is too early to draw any long-term conclusions. However, it is clear that over the course of my three year tenure, many difficult decisions will need to be taken; by policy-makers, university leaders, and our colleagues and students. These decisions will influence the long-term future of the higher education sector – the sector’s long-term health has to be at the forefront of our thinking. We cannot afford to make the wrong call.

“It is clear that over the course of my three year tenure, many difficult decisions will need to be taken; by policy-makers, university leaders, and our colleagues and students.”

Our focus has to be on making sure the opportunities, transformational experiences, and knowledge generation/application offered by universities remains central to the purpose of our universities, and accessible to all who can benefit. We must not be drawn into just responding to short term political imperatives. We must play a long-term game if we are to serve current and future generations. Higher education is too important to the future health, wealth and prospects of the UK – we must lead it with care, creativity and passion.

My own experiences in life have given me a strong passion for the transformational power of higher education. I want to do all I can to make sure those opportunities are available to all who can benefit, in the strongest higher education sector that we can possibly achieve – a sector that is world leading.

Pressing for Growth

The sector is strong and must be allowed to grow and prosper. The economic and social impact of universities, across our academic activities, is something everyone involved with the sector can be truly proud of. Whether it is a story of student success, a breakthrough in cancer research, or universities supporting economic recovery at a local, regional and national level – we have all been touched by the crucial work of our universities. Societies and businesses have benefited, alongside the millions of students over generations.

“My own experiences in life have given me a strong passion for the transformational power of higher education.”

We know the future is a global knowledge-based economy – so we need to make sure we keep pace and realise our potential in this environment. To do so we need more graduates and a strong and enterprising research-base. As universities, we need to maximize our impact – demonstrating how our learning, teaching, research, knowledge exchange and external partnerships all come together to generate a really unique offer.

In making the case to support growth in these challenging economic times, we clearly need to get even smarter at demonstrating our efficiency as well as our ability to change and identify new markets. But we also need to mobilise those we work with to be our advocates and support the tremendous work we do.

A Strong Voice

University Alliance has, over the past few years, established a strong and clear voice in the sector. I am very proud to have the opportunity to build on such a positive and solid base, set by my predecessor Professor Janet Beer, and the great work of Libby Hackett and the University Alliance team.

The Alliance will continue to take a sensible, challenging, evidence-based and helpful approach – suggesting credible alternatives that recognise the financial context that higher education and the public sector as a whole are working within.

“The transformational power of universities – for individuals, societies and the environment, is far too important to put at risk and cannot be considered merely in the short term.” 

But we certainly won’t shy away from ‘growling’ if policies put the important work of our universities and the sector as a whole under threat! The transformational power of universities – for individuals, societies and the environment, is far too important to put at risk and cannot be considered merely in the short term.

University Alliance has already made a huge impact, influencing policy outcomes and showcasing the role of our universities in transforming futures – through the stories of our students, our business partners, and our research users.

The Big Issues

As we move forward, a number of critical issues need to be addressed:

  • Fundamentally – what is the sector’s vision for higher education? What sort of system do we need in the future and are we making the right decisions now to get us there? We need a sustainable and credible long-term strategy that has all party support and public backing.
  • We need to find a more balanced way to finance higher education, where the sector’s public value is properly recognized. We need to do more to engage the public about the value of higher education, we need to better explain how it is funded, and we need to reach out to more of society.
  • We need to protect research funding beyond a small ‘elite’ of universities. Transformational research happens across the sector and this is something we cannot afford to starve – instead it is something we have to nurture in order to drive growth.
  • We need to make sure transformational opportunities remain open to all who can benefit – we have to nurture talent regardless of background. For both social and economic reasons, we cannot afford for this to get lost in the rapid change to a more marketised sector.

But as a starting point, we will continue to stress that now isn’t the time for any big policy changes. The impact of the new system is not yet clear and an evidence-base is crucial for any future changes. This year isn’t a reliable indicator, as universities and students adjust to the new system.

I look forward to working with the exceptional team at University Alliance and my fellow Vice-Chancellors as we press forward to address these critical issues, in order to ensure a strong and sustainable higher education sector that fully realises its potential to transform the futures of individuals, society and the economy.

Focusing on the Future
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