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UK universities are not obstacles the government needs to overcome

Written by Debra Humphris, Chair of University Alliance and Vice-Chancellor of University of Brighton
This article first appeared in Times Higher Education on 13th April 2021

It is often said that the diversity of the UK higher education sector is its strength. However clichéd the phrase may have become, the past 12 months has surely revealed it to be true. From developing a vaccine to deploying staff and students to the front lines of the national response, every institution has truly played its part during the pandemic.

It stands to reason, then, that universities of all shapes and sizes will also be central to the nation’s recovery from Covid-19. As the recently published Knowledge Exchange Framework revealed, members of the University Alliance mission group, which I chair, are particularly skilled at working with local partners in both the public and private sectors to support growth and regeneration.

We work with further education partners and local businesses to deliver higher-level skills, ensuring that the location and nature of provision directly responds to regional industry needs. And in 2018/19 alone we collectively supported more than 2,000 active graduate and postgraduate spin-offs, start-ups and social enterprises, with a combined turnover of £157 million. We also supported almost 24,000 commercial and non-commercial organisations with consultancy, research and the provision of facilities and equipment.

So why, then, are universities being increasingly sidelined in the recovery effort? The March budget paid lip service to world-leading universities, and there was a welcome nod to the role of universities in the government’s plan for growth, but they remain absent as delivery partners in the levelling-up prospectus, despite having much of the expertise and infrastructure already in place to support interventions.

Indeed, universities narrowly avoided significant cuts in research spending of up to £1 billion a year amid the confusion over how the cost of Horizon Europe participation will be met, and they still face a very uncertain financial future, with tuition fee cuts and a swathe of potential measures to reduce access to higher education still on the table.

Philip Augar’s post-18 review has been hanging like a Sword of Damocles over the sector for nearly two years. However, most of its recommendations hail from a wholly different era. In a difficult fiscal environment, the Treasury will understandably be anxious about the rising costs of higher education but, post-pandemic, we will need more graduates, not fewer.

Even Augar himself has backtracked from the recommendation of a fee cut for £7,500. We need to find a  sustainable funding settlement that is fair for students, universities and the taxpayer.

However, there is one area that Augar largely got right. That is the need to create a more integrated and flexible post-18 education system, in which learners can space out their learning across a lifetime and transfer credits between further and higher education providers. The University Alliance and others have been calling for this transformation for years, and we have never needed it more, with large numbers of people having to upskill or retrain in the wake of the pandemic-induced recession.

Just the other day, the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, called on the sector to “unlock and open up our education system together to expand opportunities for all”. We would like nothing better. However, a number of barriers stand in the way. Regulation needs to be developed that incentivises rather than hinders flexible provision and enables more accessible higher technical options, including degree apprenticeships.

Critics are often quick to paint the sector as self-interested, but this past year has also shown that universities of all kinds continue to be driven by their civic missions. The University Alliance’s “Powering the UK’s Future” campaign, launched at the end of March, underlines the genuine commitment that we all have to playing our part in the coming months and years.

However, the success of this will be dependent on a policy approach that engages universities as partners for delivery, rather than obstacles to overcome. The government must grasp that a thriving, diverse higher education sector isn’t just a “nice to have”. It’s an essential vehicle for driving economic, social and cultural recovery.

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