By September, I will have served my term of office as Chair of University Alliance and it will be time to hand over to Steve West at the University of the West of England.
The last three years have been tumultuous – and I don’t think that this is an overstatement. As I leave my role at the Alliance, the sector as a whole will be taking its first steps under a new student funding regime.
It is with some pride that I can say I think the Alliance has contributed significantly and positively to the public understanding of the centrality of higher education to a healthy and prosperous society.
From 2012 teaching in higher education in England will derive the majority of its funding from private finance. This system is not dissimilar to that which is found in the United States; however, the US has moved to a balance of funding where the private contribution of the individual far outweighs public investment over several decades – we are moving to that ratio in two short years.
We are, of course, waiting to see the results of the reforms. I feel certain that 2012-13 will not be a typical year and therefore we will have to wait for the system to bed in before we start to draw conclusions about behavioural change – especially as regards subject choice, participation by mature students and commitment to postgraduate study. While there is much to be positive about – and in particular the fact that studying for a degree remains free at the point of entry – there will inevitably be both intended and un-intended consequences.
Inspite the scale of this change, I think it is important that we lift our sights to focus on the long term challenge we face – and would have faced with or without the change in fees. For me an important question, particularly at a time of austerity, is how do we build a public understanding of the value of higher education? And not just in the research we undertake but in our role as educators. How do we ensure that people, whether they went to University or not, understand the transformative power of education for individuals, for business and for society as a whole?
We have made a very strong start in our first three years as a formal organisation by engaging positively in debates about higher education and building credibility through the strength of our research and publications.
Whatever the economic climate and however long it takes to rebuild our public finances, higher education and its value will always be subject to scrutiny and debate. Public attitudes to its value will inform not only decisions on funding, but also questions of regulation, access, research and curriculum.
The things I often talk about; better and easier access to information on our teaching and research success, a more focused and collaborative approach with our students and continued effort on widening access – these will continue to receive proper attention. We will always, however, need to do more. As a sector we will need to demonstrate the efficient use of funding, our positive impact on the communities we serve and the powerful impact higher education has on the lives of individuals and their families. We will need to show how, as a network of over 160 higher education institutions in the United Kingdom, we provide a rich ecosystem for the promotion of social mobility, the development of business, and the improvement of public services. There will be many other voices and many other calls on the funding and Government support we will require. But I believe that making a strong case for the value of the role of higher education in the whole of society will not only benefit the sector but the country as a whole.
For me an important question, particularly at a time of austerity, is how do we build a public understanding of the value of higher education?
It is with some pride that I can say I think the Alliance has contributed significantly and positively to the public understanding of the centrality of higher education to a healthy and prosperous society. We have made a very strong start in our first three years as a formal organisation by engaging positively in debates about higher education and building credibility through the strength of our research and publications. Our success is down to the input of many and particularly down to the wise advice and counsel we’ve received from my fellow Vice-Chancellors and the leadership of Libby Hackett and effective working of her team.
I can say, with conviction, that we are in a strong position to face the challenges of the future and I hope that, with the help of others, we will continue our outstanding work in teaching and research and in building a more positive, wider understanding of the value of higher education as a whole.