Last week, the Higher Education Policy Institute published a report written from Sheffield Hallam. The report, Making Universities Matter: how universities can help heal a divided Britain, was authored by Lord Bob Kerslake, the University’s chair of governors, Natalie Day, our head of strategy and policy, and myself. In the report, we set out a wide-ranging agenda for reshaping post-18 education in England, taking as its starting points our local experience at Sheffield Hallam and our analysis of the challenges facing universities more generally in a post-Brexit country.
These are odd times to be working in universities. Every day, in this and every other university, staff do a fabulous job. They teach well, up-to-date with their disciplines, preparing young people for the challenges of a changing world. They undertake phenomenal research which will shape the way we meet those challenges. They offer academic and professional services to a high standard. And yet from outside there seems to be a barrage of criticism: ‘grade inflation’, senior pay, governance failures, groupthink. The view from inside universities looking out and the view from outside looking in seem to be at odds.
That sense of dislocation – between the view from the inside and the view from the outside was reinforced earlier this month, by the UPP Foundation’s polling evidence. For all the powerful, often dominant physical presence of universities, over a third of people have never visited their local university, a figure which rises to four in ten for those from working class backgrounds. If universities are viewed in their traditional sense as vehicles for teaching and education, these numbers aren’t that surprising. If universities want to be taken seriously as drivers of opportunity and economic change, as anchor institutions, these numbers matter. As universities are increasingly asked to focus on their obligations to their local community and geography, these numbers present an important reminder of the scale of the task ahead if universities are to fulfil their more civic missions.
Perhaps nothing crystallises the difference more sharply than the divisions over Brexit: university staff and students, and graduates more generally, were overwhelmingly likely to support membership of the European Union. But the remain cause was utterly, at least for the foreseeable future, vanquished in December’s election. Our HEPI report argues that universities need to accept this reality and far from being passive observers of the divisions exposed through Brexit, must become confident and central players in reshaping a fragmented Britain. In Making Universities Matter, we set out a prospectus for the future of universities in a reshaped nation, giving new meaning to the concept of ‘anchor’ institution in acting as allies of government to deliver educational and social opportunities.
Our report lays down a challenge to the sector, asking universities to take responsibility to work with government and other actors to address social and economic tensions. We build on, and take further, the work of the Civic University Commission, also chaired by our co-author – Bob Kerslake, which challenged universities to re-shape their role and responsibility to their communities. and suggest that a more civic mission needs to become hardwired into the fabric of institutional cultures and outlooks. We propose that place and civic engagement should be central to higher education and research policy, as well as national agendas more broadly.
Our central argument is focused around three main themes: partnerships, progression, and place. We look to engage universities, nationally and locally in skills agreements with further education institutions to drive future economies. We propose a ‘First-in-Family Allowance’, ensuring the first year of a degree is tuition-free for any student whose parents have not obtained a tertiary education, and we look to embed a co-funded collaborative education outreach programme with a focus on deprived communities, building on the excellent work of our own HeppSY programme here at Hallam. We propose a redirection of Industrial Strategy funds to foster regional innovation, thus making the challenge of tackling the UK’s debilitating productivity divide an explicit purpose of research and innovation funding.
At the core of our proposals is a recognition that institutions which profess to be drivers of opportunity cannot thrive in a regionally unequal society. We offer recommendations to government and to universities, but mostly we propose a much more confident and collaborative relationship in order to help shape a radically different Britain. Universities believe they matter. We need to prove that once more and fundamentally make universities matter more to more people for more things.
There was a good deal of coverage of our report last week – putting Sheffield Hallam at the forefront of debate about the future of universities. It was picked up not just in the specialist HE press but also in national newspapers and on the Radio 4 Today programme. The reception has generally been good and we know that it is being read in government. One commentary said that we deserved “full marks for ambition and wide-eyed optimism”. There are far worse things.