The 2019 University Alliance Summit

Vanessa's summit speech

This week, University Alliance held its Annual member’s summit meeting. CEO Vanessa Wilson reflects on the event and looks forward to the future.

This was an exciting week for me. Since becoming CEO of University Alliance in March, I have travelled the length and breadth of the UK, meeting our members and exploring their world-class facilities. The summit this week, however, was my first opportunity to bring them all together in one space. It was fantastic to witness this concentration of the drive and enthusiasm of staff across our membership and it reminded me why I am fortunate to have returned to higher education, and to work with Alliance Universities.

As well as bringing together and harnessing the energy of our members, the summit was an opportunity for us to provide them with some much needed clarity on our future direction and purpose. For this reason, it could not have come at a better time.

Uncertainty is the byword of the moment, both in the sector and more widely. Nationally, continual questions around Brexit have clouded our vision of the future. In the HE sector, this speculative atmosphere has been compounded by the successive delays of the ‘Post-18 funding review’. Arriving as it did in a “political vacuum”, following the resignation of its chief proponent, the report’s release provided few assurances. In fact, I believe if implemented it would return HE access to the preserve of the most privileged in society, at a time when we should be championing higher participation rates, not lower. Headline recommendations for fee cuts and the reinstitution of maintenance grants may now be common knowledge but there is fresh ambiguity as to their impact, whether they will be adopted and by whom, as the Conservatives search for their new leader.

Having said this, with uncertainty also comes opportunity; HE is high on the political agenda. We hoped to grasp this opportunity with both hands at our summit event, through the launch of University Alliance’s new vision and strategy and by collaborating with members on how best to implement it.

Most importantly, this relied on an understanding of what sets UA members apart from the others in the sector and what connects us. Firstly, we have a commitment to supporting social diversity. We are about breaking down barriers by educating students with fantastic capability, but often from challenging sometimes disadvantaged backgrounds, who are juggling dependents, jobs and life, and enabling them to fulfil their true potential and promise.

Secondly we prioritise innovative teaching and the student experience.

Thirdly Alliance Universities are place based institutions, the cornerstones of their cities and regions, with real and tangible links to industry delivering applied research with real world impact.

Fourthly we are the engine house delivering the talent skills for industry and public services. Without us the nation would stall and falter.

Alliance universities are making a difference.

They are vibrant, energetic institutions, expanding and innovating to meet the changing needs of society.

They have a unique perspective and a distinct voice to add to the ongoing conversations in higher education. The aim of University Alliance is to help them unify and amplify that voice so that all students and institutions are equally represented in the corridors of power and across the media.

Our message also needs to be more resolute, more exacting, the ‘Rebel Alliance’ of higher education, holding policy makers to account and engaging with and creating media stories through highlighting the work of our members.

Universities are strongest when they are working together as this week’s summit event highlighted. Going forward our goal will be to form a more cohesive community, to pool our collective strengths and fight for the things that we as an alliance are committed to.

Our universities have a huge amount of pride in the work they do and rightly so. I want that same pride to be inspired through membership of an Alliance of such exceptional institutions and for the opportunity to ally with this community to be highly sought after, protected, valued and fiercely guarded.

The future may still be uncertain for HE but it is also exciting. There is space for change and for different voices to shape and challenge that change. As we move forward University Alliance will be harnessing the purpose and positivity of our members helping them to unlock their potential and transform the lives of their students, their communities and society as a whole.

Further reading