Closing speech at UA Summit 2015: Building on our Strengths

Our Chair, Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of UWE Bristol, gave the closing speech at University Alliance summit 2015.  He talked about how our universities can work together and build on the strengths of our members to be an innovative and enterprising force in higher education.

Today has been an important moment for us to pause and reflect.

To think about the times we are in and the universities we are, individually and collectively.

We are a great group of universities: innovative, creative, engaging  and enterprising, with real strengths, delivering an outstanding real world learning experience which is current, relevant and research informed supporting  home and overseas students. Individually we are punching above our weight bringing tangible economic and social benefits locally and globally.

Together, through University Alliance, we provide a strong collective identity and voice. A voice embracing change and working in partnership with others to Make a Difference.

I want to briefly set out our bold and challenging vision for the next few years. University Alliance will not just be a strong, lobbying voice for our universities but also a powerful aspirational brand for a group of outstanding, forward thinking, creative, connected and collaborative universities. As I said at the Summit last year, together we offer innovative and relevant teaching and research with impact to a diverse global population. We achieve this by building networks, collaborations that draws collective strengths together.

We should not let ourselves be boxed in by what a ‘mission group’ used to be. Let’s take advantage of these uncertain times to break out of these confines, to set the agenda rather than follow it. Much of this has been achieved individually but I want you to take a moment to think about what more we can do if we do it together. How bold do we want to be?

We’ve already started to think about this today.

What is clear to me is that students, businesses, government and society are all demanding something new, something different from higher education.  It’s essential that we listen to them and decide how we best respond.

As Julie’s speech this morning illustrated, the higher education sector is changing rapidly. This is a highly competitive sector and is going to become increasingly so on a global scale.

In this context, we need to tackle head-on the idea of what a university is in the 21st Century – what the value proposition is and why it is worth investing, engaging with or attending. We need to be communicating the evidence – Alliance universities offer leading courses with excellent employment prospects, highly relevant to the demands of living and working in a modern, dynamic and creative, global economy.

In Maddalaine’s presentation this morning, she talked about how our group of universities are on the up, because we have time and again adapted to meet the needs of different eras. Our evolution reveals just how innovative we have been and the extent to which we have played the role of disruptive challengers changing the sector as a whole for the better. Young universities have so much to share with government, businesses and the sector about the things we do well – in particular, our rich history of finding new ways to deliver fresh thinking and ideas to secure the UK’s future competitiveness.

It’s all very well to say this – these words need to be backed up by hard evidence.

And we can do that too.

Compelling evidence will be crucial to cutting through the noise

Alliance universities undertake world-class research that solves real-world problems – more than a fifth of the UK’s top research in engineering, allied health and design is done by us.

We produce enterprising and entrepreneurial job-ready graduates: 89 per cent of our graduates are employed six months after graduation.

31 per cent of graduate start-ups that survive three years or more.

We have a turnover of £3.6bn with an estimated economic impact of £10bn.

We are the ‘go to’  leaders in our localities working with partners to develop and deliver strategies for growth – shaping the places that people live, work and prosper. . We lead the enterprise and entrepreneurial agenda with over 20,000 business links including with over 13,000 SMEs. We work collaboratively to create futures and deliver opportunity through our teaching, research and enterprise.

Let’s look at the recent REF exercise – in comparison with the RAE, the proportion of our 3* and 4* rated research increased by 71 per cent.

Our research power increased by 27 per cent, in comparison with 16 per cent for rest of the sector.

In an increasingly squeezed funding environment with every sector seeking protection from inevitable spending cuts, we must raise awareness of the unique value our institutions bring to individuals and to the economy.  We are part of an impressive ecosystem and like all ecosystems all parts need to be nurtured and supported.

Compelling evidence will be crucial to cutting through the noise.

Last month’s election saw the Conservative Party taking up the reins of power with a majority of 12 MPs. They believe that they’ve been given a mandate to enact real and lasting change, to cut departmental spending even more drastically than they were able to during the previous five years under the Coalition administration. There are suggestions that BIS is in line for particularly “stinging cuts”. More than 80 per cent of its £13 billion budget goes towards scientific research, further and higher education.

Now, a traditional ‘mission group’ could take on the normal “lobbying” role by itself. And this has served us well in the past – with successes like securing student opportunity funding and embedding the principle of funding excellent research wherever it exists.

But I believe times have changed and we must change with it. It is time for institutions to work together in innovative ways to demonstrate that we put our money where our mouth is as well as stand up together to make the case to secure our future.  We must work hard to demonstrate that we are efficient, effective and incredibly productive in what we do.

How we say it will be just as vital as what we say

Where there are challenges, there are also opportunities.

A growing political clamour for devolution to cities and regions will play to the strengths of some of our institutions at the heart of driving economic growth in their communities and regions. We are well-aligned to the economic needs and priorities of this government, and their desire to form closer links between higher education institutions and their favoured vehicle for driving local economic growth, Local Enterprise Partners.

Many of us are already playing a leadership role locally – whether within our towns, cities or regions. We are leading and influencing the thinking on LEPs to align infrastructure, education and skills to growth and productivity. Universities will be increasingly encouraged to equip students with the skills, knowledge and attributes necessary to provide for the occupations and businesses of the future.  This is something we have been doing for over a century and, again, we can bring our strengths to play.

But these new challenges and opportunities demand fresh thinking and a different way of working for University Alliance.

This is being shaped by a new chief executive, Maddalaine Ansell, who has spearheaded the development of a new strategic framework for the next five years. So that University Alliance provides a strong collective voice that informs and shapes the decisions of government, business, communities and individuals and in particular those considering higher education.

I want to take a moment here to expand on how we can ensure ‘what we say’ has maximum impact among our peers, policymakers and other stakeholders. Key to this will be how we describe ourselves and what others think about us.

Following extensive consultation and work, University Alliance has created a powerful brand narrative to allow us to develop a strong profile that boldly identifies us in the domestic and global market place. It also provides a co-brand for our institutions to link to, and feel proud to say they are a part of.

Naturally, how we say it will be just as vital as what we say. This will be determined by the quality of our analysis and thinking.

That’s why we have started a new “Supporting UK-wide competitiveness” project. This sets out to reinforce the evidence base we will need going into the 2015 Comprehensive Spending Review – backing up our political and policy engagement throughout the year and identifying the needs of the future economy and the role our universities can play in meeting them.

This evidence will be crucial to help us navigate potential threats to members. We cannot bury our heads in the sand. Rather we need to be proactive, to work together to make sure our voices are heard. We need to shape the debate and influence thinking and action. Next month we have the Summer Budget, later in the year there will be the Comprehensive Spending Review, and possibly next year, the country will vote in the EU referendum.

The Doctoral Training Alliance is clear example of the direction in which University Alliance is travelling

Working collectively will be essential to our success, demonstrating to policymakers how our innovative and enterprising collaborations will help the UK compete as a global knowledge economy in the 21st Century.

That’s why I’m delighted to be able to reveal more about the Doctoral Training Alliance which heralds a new approach to postgraduate research opportunities and to Alliance universities working collaboratively together.

The DTA builds on the research strengths and industry-focused ethos of Alliance universities to offer fully funded postgraduate programmes which deliver excellent research with real world impact, an expert network of support, and improved employment opportunities for researchers.

The first DTA will be in Applied Biosciences for Health and will start in October 2015. Researchers can apply for DTA programmes at one of 12 Alliance universities nationwide: Coventry, Manchester Metropolitan, Plymouth, Sheffield Hallam, Teesside, Greenwich, Huddersfield, Lincoln, Kingston, Nottingham Trent, Salford and UWE Bristol.

With two places offered at each institution, the DTA researchers in Applied Biosciences for Health would form a cohort of 24 in the first year, 48 in the second year, and expand to 72 over the three-year programme.

Once the concept has been proved, the programme will be expanded in future years to offer DTA programmes in other areas of Alliance research strength such as Design and Creative Arts, Energy and Climate Change, and Engineering.

The DTA is clear example of the direction in which University Alliance is travelling, beyond the confines of a traditional ‘mission group’. I don’t want us to stop there. We have the opportunity to carve out a new niche for ourselves – to be a new centre for excellence – that will allow us to make a major impact.

Let us build on this work, and on the strengths and collective capacity of our members, to be an innovative and enterprising force in this rapidly-changing higher education sector.

Let’s look to the future to inspire, innovate, co-create and deliver a new kind of excellence for students, for our communities and the UK.  Together we can and will Make a Difference.

Thank you.

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