Surviving the policy onslaught: how HE might be able to regain control of the debate

The higher education sector is in my view at one of its (arguably relatively regular) crossroads. There have been flashpoints in the history of the Prime Minister’s dealings with the sector and in addition, the sector is facing a range of controversial policy initiatives that cumulatively have the potential to damage the health and stability of some institutions, and indeed to the perception of UKHE as a whole. These include:

·         The proposal to rank institutions as gold, silver or bronze in the TEF, which could lead to adverse inferences being drawn about the quality of education on offer at institutions who are ranked lower than gold. Not only could this affect the fees institutions can charge (a direct financial impact) but also their potential to recruit students (an indirect impact);

·         The Higher Education and Research Bill’s proposals to increase competition and for greater regulation of the sector, which will increase “market” volatility and the risk of regulatory failure;

·         The suggestion that institutions will have to run “good or outstanding” schools in order to be able to charge tuition fees above £6000, which as my colleague Geraldine Swanton observed in her blog 'Schools not likely to be out forever for universities'is easier said than done and carries both reputational and financial risks;

·         The indication that tougher curbs will be introduced on the recruitment of international students through a combination of more restrictive visa conditions and by limiting the numbers of institutions who can recruit to only those who are deemed “high quality”. The test for this is as yet unspecified, but could be linked to the TEF gold standard. Again, the risk for reputational and financial damage is clear.

Add to these the Brexit fallout in terms of EU research funding, staff and students, as well as the demographic down turn, the reduction in part-time student numbers, the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, and the small but growing number of large employers who no longer require a degree on recruitment, and it becomes clear that the environment for universities is, if not exactly hostile, certainly not conducive.

It does not help that the Prime Minister appears unresponsive to many of the arguments that universities might otherwise muster to challenge these developments. Here are some observations I would tentatively make about Mrs May: she has had years of clashing with the interests of universities in her role as Home Secretary, not just in relation to immigration but also Prevent; she has shown little sympathy with protests that her policies are damaging to HE, famously telling universities the solution was to find a new business model; she has little time for what she appears to regard as “special pleading” on behalf of universities; she is capable of discounting evidence (just think of all the reports that show the public is  not in fact concerned about student migration); and she appears to run a tight and closed ship, so that little will get through without her direct and personal support.  To adopt a formulation I have used previously, she does not seem to regard universities as accessible, trusted and relevant.

All this means that simply complaining about these policies or pointing out the flaws and risks is unlikely to work. But I do see a chink of light or glimmer of hope in how the sector might establish a more productive dialogue that could in turn lead the opportunity to influence some of these potentially adverse policies.

Mrs May seems genuinely passionate about targeting those who feel excluded  from the way our society has developed and wants the government to intervene where necessary to remedy this; the social mobility opportunity areas are an example of how she proposes to do this. 

I have written previously on how targeting the same groups should be part of a renewed civic mission for universities. As I have argued, this approach is consistent with the core mission of universities as charities, obliged to operate for the public benefit, with a strong regional connection.

Although all universities will say that they already play an important part in their regions, the national and global focus of many institutions means that the engagement is not as visible as it could be. Senior level commitment to the institutional mission to benefit local communities needs to be louder and prouder to ensure it is heard and felt by those who have not felt engaged with their university and by a Prime Minister who is scornful of the demands of the liberal elite, of whom, frankly, higher education is a major producer.

So perhaps if universities enthusiastically embrace and even take a lead in the PM’s ostensible aspiration for a “country that works for everyone” by demonstrating how they will connect, open up and improve the communities in which they sit, if they show that they are indeed accessible, relevant and trusted, Mrs May might be more persuadable that some of their other needs (particularly the ability to attract global talent) should also be accommodated.

Of course, it may be that the lady’s not for turning. But it has to be worth a try.



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