Open letter to Professor Alison Wolf and Jeremy Warner

We welcome Professor Wolf raising the important issue of further and higher education funding in her recent report. The media coverage, including in the Telegraph, shows just how important this issue is. However, in both the report and coverage of it, the universities described do not reflect ours. We would be delighted to welcome you onto any of our campuses where you will experience something very different – and exciting.

The UK faces some big challenges. Not least, how to tackle its dismal productivity growth record since the crash in 2008. While other nations such as the US, Australia and Japan have seen growth in GDP per hour (the measure of productivity) since 2008, according to OECD calculations the UK has pretty much remained stagnant. It does not help that we are still a society where inequality limits the aspirations and opportunities of many. To truly prosper, we must ensure that everyone’s potential is realised.

The skills and knowledge ecosystem of any modern economy should be a fundamental driver of increased productivity. In the UK, universities alone have been responsible for an average 57% of UK labour productivity gains between 1995 and 2013.

We believe colleges and universities are both important to an effective knowledge and skills ecosystem. Both should be properly funded if the UK is going to boost productivity.

But we have a different story to tell about highly relevant, practice-based universities – nothing like the universities described in Professor Wolf’s report and Jeremy Warner’s subsequent article.

University Alliance brings together Britain’s universities for cities and regions. Most were established by or with industry at the time of the industrial revolution to meet the skills needs of new industries and the cities that grew up around them.

We continue to pride ourselves on our links, connections and partnerships with industry and the professions. Our students are on courses co-designed and co-delivered with employers. Up to half of our academics join us to teach directly from practice backgrounds, nearly 40% of our courses are accredited by Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies and most include placements or sandwich years. We specialise in subjects that the economy needs: nursing, teaching, engineering and the creative industries. Although 40% of our students are from low income backgrounds, our students are as likely to get graduate jobs as any others. A high proportion work in the professions for which they trained. Nearly all our nursing students become nurses and nearly all our engineering students become engineers. Consequently, we have a huge transformational impact on individuals and communities around the country and on social mobility within society as a whole.

Alliance universities actually do many of the things Professor Wolf sees as valuable: breaking the classroom mould of traditional higher education; taking higher education learning into the fast-developing industry environment; and recruiting educators from industry. All of our students, whether on an allied health degree, a world-leading animation degree or the UK’s top marine biology degree, are exposed to the latest in industry technology and developments. For example, we have the only engineering school co-established and co-delivered with industry, where students, academics and established engineers work and research side-by-side. We have the UK’s only factory-floor classroom meaning undergraduate and postgraduate students spend all of their studies in industry doing activity-led learning. Our marine biology students are on the shoreline in field centres, not in the classroom.

For the UK to tackle the productivity challenge we need a well-funded, thriving knowledge and skills ecosystem. The debate about college funding is an important one – the eco-system can only thrive when all parts are in balance. It is certainly not good for universities if colleges are under-resourced. But we must ensure that the story being told reflects the reality of what is being offered by many excellent universities in the UK.

So please, do come and visit us.

Professor Steve West

Vice-Chancellor, UWE, Bristol

Chair, University Alliance

Chair, CBI South West


Professor Mary Stuart

Vice-Chancellor, University of Lincoln

Deputy Chair, University Alliance

Director, Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership


Professor Edward Peck

Vice-Chancellor, Nottingham Trent University

Treasurer, University Alliance

Further reading