From education to employment

Three university leaders reveal their hopes for the next election

Black teacher at white board

In a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute being launched at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, three university leaders in England set out their views on what the party political manifestos should say at the next general election.

Election 2024: Three Vice-Chancellors’ Manifestos (HEPI Report 164) reveals the thinking of Professor Sir Chris Husbands of Sheffield Hallam University, Professor Sasha Roseneil of the University of Sussex and Professor Adam Tickell of the University of Birmingham.

The essays all emphasise the centrality of higher education to the UK’s future success and cover a broad range of themes, including research, local partnerships and a long-term skills strategy.

There are some areas of consensus among the authors, including on the need to tackle the cost-of-living crisis among students and the growing shortage of student accommodation as well as on the need for a single Whitehall department to replace the two that currently oversee higher education. However, the three authors differ in the priority they give to asking for more public funding.

Lucy Haire, Director of Partnerships at HEPI, said: 

‘It’s not easy for politicians to write a manifesto for higher education, especially when there are so many competing priorities for them to think about and on which to spend precious public money. In addition, higher education is a complex policy area for which there has been a great deal of legislation in recent years as well as substantial structural changes, such as the growth in the number of home and international students.

‘The idea behind this collection of ideas is to provide policymakers with evidence from a group of highly experienced vice-chancellors leading very different sorts of institutions. It’s a “view from the bridge” that we hope and expect will lead to further debate and discussion in the run up to the general election.’

Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham said:

‘Our universities stand among the UK’s most important national assets – training our workforce and developing the curiosity and creativity we need to adapt to a changing world, delivering world-leading research that tackles the global challenges faced by humanity.

‘The Government must do everything possible to help our universities thrive. We are part of the solution to the UK’s chronic and endemic challenges and can help overcome the myriad issues the UK is facing. Sustainable funding for education and research allied to a conducive environment for universities to flourish, particularly internationally, will help us to help the country.’

Professor Sasha Roseneil, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, said:

‘Over recent years, young people’s lives have been seriously impacted by the pandemic and the rising cost of living and those who are seeking to go to university are also facing the prospect of an increasingly underfunded higher education system.

‘There is political paralysis on university funding almost exclusively because of the uninspected belief that universities can only be funded through student fees. But a high-quality university sector is a public good that benefits young people and the country as a whole, and so it should command greater public investment. My manifesto makes the case for this greater public investment and explains some of things it should be spent on.’

Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice Chancellor of the Sheffield Hallam said:

‘Although the UK has one of the most sought after higher education sectors in the world, universities are not being properly utilised to drive the high-skill society we need. There are some fundamental challenges that should be top of any incoming government’s agenda.

‘Our flawed funding system needs to support provision outside of traditional full-time undergraduate degrees. We need to double down on regional policy. We also need to tackle the fact that disjointed regulation is failing to provide a joined-up approach to teaching, research and innovation.

‘The recommendations set out in our report seek to address these issues. If acted upon, they could go some way to help create a system that is fit for a high-skill economy of the twenty-first century.’

Key points:

  • Universities are one of the UK’s most important national assets and are key to providing for the knowledge-intensive, highly skilled needs of the future economy, serving as a public good that benefits the whole of society. They have the potential to play a major role in solving many of the country’s, and indeed the world’s, problems. There used to be a consensus about this but it has been broken ‘quickly and catastrophically’.
  • Research is a particular strength of UK universities which leads to world-changing innovation, productivity gains and growth.
  • Higher education is hampered by underfunding, with neither the cost of research nor the teaching of home undergraduates being adequately funded and budget deficits increasingly common.
  • While the planned Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) goes some way to addressing the need to upskill and reskill the UK’s diverse population, more support is needed.
  • Many cities and towns are greatly enhanced by the presence of a university or college, but the North of England and the Midlands both export skills to London and the South-East. Education cold spots remain throughout the UK. 
  • Since 2017, higher education has been split between two different government departments, with separate oversight of teaching and research / innovation. This has hampered successful policymaking.
  • Student maintenance provision is a particular area of concern, with housing costs dominating student spending due to a shortage of beds in many places and the fact that maintenance support has not kept up with inflation. There is a cost-of-living crisis among students. 

The various recommendations in the different manifestos include:

  • Establishing a cross-party independent commission to interrogate honestly the choices the nation faces about higher education funding. One vice-chancellor recommends using the methodology of a citizen’s assembly as part of any such review.
  • Protecting and enhancing funding for research even when it is tempting to cut it because it is crucial to the UK’s successful future, given the level of global competition. 
  • Presenting UK higher education in a positive light on the world stage, avoiding over-amplification of the few ‘low value’ degree courses and the idea that international students are taking places away from domestic students.
  • Developing a long-term skills strategy via a new National Skills Council comprising government, universities, further education, sector bodies and business.
  • Re-engineering the Student Loans Company to drive flexible and part-time learning and improving maintenance support for less well-off and mature students. Offering a ‘High Skills Bonus’ of £2,000 to 100,000 new learners. Separating the reporting of the rate of repayment of loans for student maintenance from the reporting of tuition fees.
  • Reforming the regulation of higher education in England by merging the Office for Students and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education and creating a strategic Tertiary Funding Council.
  • Providing a series of grants and premiums, including a COVID-Generation Student Premium, a Mental Health and Wellbeing Support Grant and grants to renew infrastructure and equipment, including remedying reinforced auto-clavedaerated concrete (RAAC).
  • Developing public student housing in conjunction with local authorities who can access the Public Works Loan Board and plan student housing and related facilities so that they clearly benefit local areas.

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