Going: inside, looking out

There will be three more blogs before I leave the University at the end of December. This blog is the first of a trilogy. In this, I look out at the world and at higher education at the end of 2023; in the second, I’ll look from the outside in to the University, and in the third, I’ll write a bit more personally.

There’s an episode of The West Wing called ‘the stormy present’ in which the serving and living former presidents gather for the funeral of one of their forebears. Each recalls challenging crises they had to face while the current president is struggling to respond to one. The point of the episode is, of course, that every leader thinks that they are responding to a ‘stormy present’, but all crises look more manageable when recalled from the tranquillity of hindsight.

I took over as Hallam’s Vice-Chancellor in January 2016. Looking back, it’s now clear that David Cameron’s coalition government had largely inherited New Labour’s view of higher education: that widening participation and meeting aspirations for university education was a good thing socially and economically. The funding settlement of 2012, introducing £9000 fees was and remains for some hugely controversial. But it did not dent participation rates, which continued to rise. In 2015, George Osborne took a Treasury-led decision to abolish student number controls, which heralded further growth in student numbers, even as the numbers of eighteen year olds in the UK fell. Moreover, the Conservative government elected in 2015 had foreseen the need to raise student fees to meet the rising costs of tuition, and planned to link fee increases to success in its proposed Teaching Excellence Framework. Somewhat to my surprise, I was appointed to chair the TEF, a role I’ve discharged throughout my time as Vice-Chancellor. It’s given me a privileged perspective on the development of policy in respect of higher education and teaching quality as well as deep understanding of different approaches to teaching excellence. Alongside this, in 2016 there was an acute awareness of the soft power of UK universities as international beacons of excellence, and a clear understanding that research and innovation were critical drivers of national economic success.

How distant 2016 now seems. The Brexit referendum of June 2016, just six months after I arrived, was disruptive for higher education in so many ways. Like many people in universities I was shocked by the result and all it portended. The first impact was on morale, across the university but especially amongst non-UK EU citizens who had made their careers and home here. The second impact was to raise doubts about the UK’s participation in European Union programmes: the Erasmus mobility programme, from which the UK withdraw, and the ’€85 billion Horizon Europe research programme, which, after six years of difficult negotiation, the UK joined, though not before opportunities had been lost and research networks eroded. Both had significant direct impacts on Hallam’s students and research. With hindsight – that luxury again – the referendum had more profound impacts. It turned out that university students, staff and graduates had voted in favour of EU membership in large numbers: levels of education were a real differentiator. Henceforth, universities would find themselves in difficult positions on key national debates. The Conservative Prime Ministers who followed David Cameron began to question their predecessor’s assumptions about higher education. The Augar Report, commissioned by Theresa May in 2017 and reporting in 2019, looked to tilt post-18 education towards further education and skills. The student fee was frozen, and has now been essentially static for a dozen years, with obvious consequences for institutional budgeting.

The pandemic, impacting from February 2020, was a huge system jolt for higher education. Institutions which depended above all else on shaping intellectual communities transitioned to online and remote operation at remarkable speed. There was extra-ordinary ingenuity in teaching and research, with real innovation in ways of working, but they proved more difficult to embed: emergency measures are always difficult to mainstream.

As higher education emerged from pandemic restrictions – haltingly, with multiple short-term changes in government guidance – new issues emerged. Student and staff long-term mental health were severely impacted by the experience of Covid restrictions. The spike in inflation which followed both the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused, and continues to cause, enormous hardship. A cash-strapped government’s support for universities and students was small scale and limited. Intense pressure on university budgets has followed, with impacts on almost everything we do. And government’s views of higher education shifted markedly. The social mobility and economic innovation which universities were seen to offer was now set against noisy perceptions of a ‘culture war’. Initially brought public attention by the worldwide revulsion at the murder of George Floyd in 2020, perceptions of ‘culture war’ spread rapidly in some quarters. Universities were seen by their critics, which too often seemed to include senior government ministers, as intellectual mono-cultures, and the government introduced legislation on freedom of speech. Increasingly, government and universities seemed to be talking past each other. On the one hand, universities saw themselves as agents of opportunity and long-term economic success. On the other government ministers chided universities for being insufficiently open to divergent views and slow to respond to change, whilst not confronting the economic challenges government policy was causing for the sector.

It’s been a remarkable change. Little of it could have been foreseen in January 2016. There’ll be an election within the next year, and a change of government looks likely, though predictions, as I’ve written before in these blogs, are a mug’s game. The case for higher education remains strong, and the conversations I have with friends in universities around the world remind me that there is huge faith in, and expectations on, universities to research and disseminate responses to global challenges and to offer opportunities to the next generation. Resources, I suspect, are going to be painfully tight for the rest of the decade: there simply isn’t the money in the UK to resource higher education more generously given other demands on public and private funds. But the power of higher education remains. At their best universities can and should be forces for good for individuals and for society. The privilege of leading Hallam has been to be able to shape responses to these challenges in a university so important to its people, its place and the nation – but that’s for the next blog.

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