The coronavirus pandemic has touched just about every aspect of our lives and it is certain that we will witness lasting economic, social, cultural and health implications for decades to come. With every political and policy agenda item now being addressed through this lens, we must be prepared to reframe our work to speak to this ‘new normal’. It was against this backdrop and amidst preparations for the looming emergency budget that we commissioned Public First to undertake a poll to examine what the public thinks about the role of universities post-Covid.
Conscious of the role public opinion plays in how policy issues are prioritised and shaped, and the difficult decisions facing the government on future spending priorities, we think it’s essential for universities to know the starting point on a range of fronts.
We know that Alliance universities, respected for their role in delivering highly skilled, employable and job-ready graduates, can be central to the national social, economic and cultural recovery from this shock. This polling was an exercise in understanding the perceptions and priorities of the communities we serve, to inform our strategic planning to the recovery response.
As Rachel Wolf put in Wonkhe just this week, to win the argument with government, we have to first understand where the voters are. By polling the same constituencies which are driving much of government’s own decision making, we can identify existing perceptions and understand those we need to shift. If we persuade the public, we persuade government and persuasion begins with knowing where you’re starting from and why.
Through this poll we sought to understand where the activities of Alliance universities can align with the priorities of the public for the recovery. We polled on a wide range of issues; all contextualised within a response to the covid crisis. We asked about perceptions towards the sector’s front-line response to the crisis, priorities for future public investment, and looking to the recovery, on the breadth of the ‘offer’ of our institutions, from our subject strengths to our links with industry. I’m a perennial optimist that also likes a challenge and there is much to reflect on in the findings.
Let’s start with the positives…
The role of universities on the front-line has cut through, with more than half, 56%, of those polled believing universities have been very or quite important in supporting the NHS during this period.
Looking to the future, Alliance universities are determined to play a key role in ‘levelling up’ the nation and playing their part in a social, cultural and economic recovery. And, as we’ve found through this polling, it is heartening to see that in this area there is significant public support for this mission too.
More than 70% think universities will be very or quite important to supporting the economy and society to recover after Covid-19, and when asked in what areas universities can help, there is a strong base of support for the role of professional and technical universities.
The poll identified improving scientific research for innovation and development (74%), improving the supply of professional qualifications for jobs in the labour market (54%) and training public sector workers (52%) as major priorities for the nation’s recovery.
Some 62 per cent said it was “very important” that universities teach applied subjects (for example nursing, medicine or engineering) as the country tries to rebuild, a subject group core to the mission of the Alliance.
A majority of those polled recognise the role that universities like ours play in small business and growth and productivity in local areas and across the country, and 75% see research in universities as very or quite important to driving innovation in the economy.
What else did we learn…
We approached this in the spirit of enquiry, and whilst we are pleased that there is a strong base of public support for much of our ‘offer’, we knew there would be some aspects of what we do that don’t yet resonate as well with the public. It is always important to know where support is lacking, so that we know where to focus our communications efforts.
For example, we know that public support for arts and humanities-based subjects historically poll lower than other subjects. When asked which subjects universities should prioritise within the recovery, respondents within this survey polled social sciences at 24%, with 13% for languages and 12% for the arts.
Despite this, we remain committed to defending the value of these subjects.
We have to acknowledge and recognise that there is work to be done to win over voters and government on key issues such as the debates around ‘low value’ courses. We will be using these findings as a benchmark of current opinion, a chance to understand where we’re starting from, and whilst that might be lower than we would like, at least we know how far we have to go.
Determining the level of support for investment in universities against other big policy priorities is necessary when the government is making the same calculations. Whilst overall, support for increased funding for public services polled better than expected, when asked which priorities government should fund, universities polled low on the list.
Given the context, it was to be expected that the NHS would come out on top and whilst the low public support for increased spending on HE is not a popular finding for the sector, it remains a helpful indication of the challenge ahead as we gear up for an emergency budget.
And if nothing else, isn’t the spirit of higher education all about identifying issues, seeing where the evidence will lead, grappling with complex issues and advancing debate? See the full data set here.
Building a community-led recovery response
As professional and technical universities whose mission is absolutely driven by supporting students, local industry and our communities, it is pleasing that this role is valued by the public. But our universities also know that they can go further and play a key role in turning the tide of devastation that the Covid-19 pandemic is already wreaking on our communities and regions.
There will be challenges ahead, not least a significantly reduced job market and a downturn predicted to hit regional economies hardest. However, Alliance universities will draw on the strong ties they have with industry and connections at all levels of the community. They will provide upskilling, reskilling, support for businesses and industries, and applied research to boost productivity and innovation within our towns and regions.
Moreover, we will lead the charge on defending the value and importance of our creative subjects and sectors.
Working with and through their communities is embedded within the DNA of Alliance universities: for many, it is the very reason that they came into existence. They have a clear mission to dedicate resource, people, capacity and knowledge to making a positive difference to the communities in which they are based.
In times of crisis, listening to the opinions of these communities has never been more important.