There’s an old, and now very hackneyed story which used to feature a lot in management training courses, about how (the example was always a frog) if a frog is in a saucepan of water which is gently heated, it simply doesn’t notice the change in temperature until it’s too late for it to react. The environment around us changes and sometimes we don’t notice quite when it happened. Something of this might be happening around higher education policy.
For thirty years, through the governments of Margaret Thatcher (who oversaw the first post-1960s phase of university expansion), John Major (who abolished the artificial binary divide between universities and polytechnics), Tony Blair (who set a target for 50% higher education participation), Gordon Brown (who gave universities their own department of state) and David Cameron (who finally abolished student number controls), universities have been a vital ingredient of government policy. There is a strong story to tell. Universities are engines of innovation and knowledge-creation, playing strongly into the story of the twenty-first century as a knowledge-based economy. Universities are beacons of opportunity, opening up possibilities for individuals to realise their ambitions and creativity. Universities are symbols of aspiration: the Millennium Cohort Study, tracing the lives of 27,000 children born in the year 2000, found in 2003 that 90% of mothers of three year olds had an ambition for their children to go to university. Peter Mandler’s 2020 book The Crisis of the Meritocracy explores the rise of mass education in England and shows that demand for higher education growth largely dictated the responses of politicians. For students, governments, society, universities have by and large been a good news story. To quote a much earlier Prime Minister MacMillan, perhaps in the thirty years after 1986 universities “never had it so good”.
In more recent times, a different story has emerged. The universities minister, no less, has queried whether too many eighteen-year-olds are going to university. The Secretary of State for Education has publicly abandoned the Blairite 50% target and spoken in unhelpfully disparaging terms of students “graduating with nothing but debt”. Universities have been disparaged by a Policy Exchange report as mono-cultures in which Brexit supporting cultural conservatives feel uncomfortable. The editor of the Daily Telegraph has set the voices of an authentic England against those of the “metropolitan university-educated elite”. As government gears up for what may be far-reaching decisions on university funding as it finalises its response to the Augar review, questions are being mooted about fee cuts, student number controls, minimum entry requirements which may be set relatively high, more intrusive regulation and legislative interventions over freedom of speech. Set against the experience of 1986 to 2018, this is a remarkable turnaround. There is still lip-service to the quality of the UK’s universities, particularly given our role in the Covid-response, but it is quite hard to come across a ministerial speech which doesn’t follow such praise with the word “but….”
The challenge for universities is to position themselves not in terms of politics – universities are, should be and must be politically neutral institutions in which a wide variety of ideas are explored and a diversity of views expressed – but in terms of thinking about their role in a radically changed political and policy context. There are real challenges in some of what is being mooted: a cut in student fees, even if selectively focused on some currently out-of-policy-flavour subject areas would significantly impact on the ability of universities to deliver high quality student experience. At Sheffield Hallam we have invested heavily in recent years in changes which have made a powerful difference to student experience and progression, reshaping our careers support and offer, with enviable student satisfaction of over 95%, and creating a sector-leading ‘student support triangle’ so that every student has an academic, welfare and employability adviser. Over and beyond the pandemic we have also invested heavily in student technology support alongside significant hardship support. These are powerful drivers of excellence – but they need funding.
But adapting to a changing policy landscape involves some reflection on the places where determined and ambitious universities can make a difference. For the overwhelming majority of students, choosing to go to university is the right choice: it gives them a foundation of knowledge, skills and experiences which prepares them not just for their first graduate job but for a career in a volatile and changing labour market and citizenship in a complex and diverse society. The global research tells us that university graduates are more likely to earn more, but also to live longer, are more likely to vote and to enjoy more years of healthy life. But this argument on individual social return isn’t enough. It’s also important to demonstrate universities’ contributions to the future economy, not just in the areas of advanced technology to which governments too often turn, but in the creative and cultural economy on which a good deal of future growth through and beyond recovery from the pandemic depends. It’s important to make the case for universities’ contributions to the development of advanced and sophisticated skills across all these areas. It’s important to articulate the importance of universities to the development of places – the places in which they are already located and the places in which they need to take their value to. It’s important to build the importance of universities not just as deliverers of these purposes but as civic convenors.
This is a different agenda from the agenda of the last thirty years. The world has turned. As government has, crudely, moved left on the economy and right on culture, universities have to respond. Unlike the frog in the saucepan, we are aware that change is upon us, but there’s a danger that too many institutions flail around as the water warms – assuming that it will cool down again or lacking the flexibility to move quickly enough. Our challenges now are to demonstrate the depth and breadth of our contribution, mobilise our resources in support of it and and ensure we are seen as a critical part of the answer to building a more resilient and cohesive nation before the water gets too hot.