Richard Brabner, Director of UPP Foundation

Universities are key to levelling up: scrap year one fees for first in family students and redirect research funding to #LeftBehind regions

A new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, Making Universities Matter: How higher education can help to heal a divided Britain (HEPI Report 125), published today (27 Feb) is calling for fundamental change to ensure universities meet the priorities of their communities and help the Government bridge social, economic and regional divides. 

Building on the recommendations of the Augar Review, the paper argues that the post-18 education system can realise its full potential through a renewed focus on the importance of partnerships, progression and place.

The report makes six ambitious recommendations for addressing these challenges:

  1. Government should establish a National Skills Council for England, bringing together leaders from colleges, universities, sector bodies and funding agencies with oversight of a new £400 million Future Economies Programme (funded from the Government’s £3 billion National Skills Fund) to drive collaboration and encourage locally focused partnerships to address skills shortages and educational disadvantage. 
  2. With capacity to access up to £10 million of Future Economies support, universities and colleges should develop comprehensive local skills agreements, outlining how they will work together to address the skills and educational needs of their local geography.
  3. Government should introduce 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.
  4. Both the sector and Government should come together to provide long-term financial and policy commitment to build on the success of the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) and ensure every potential student has tailored support, guidance and advice on their educational options.  
  5. The Government should earmark £500 million of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund into a Regional Growth and Innovation Fund in order to drive innovation and investment across the country and address the debilitating productivity divide.
  6. The sector should sponsor and make active use of a Civic Index to help institutions measure and monitor their engagement activity with their local area. 

Lord (Bob) Kerslake, Chair of the Board of Governors for Sheffield Hallam University, former Head of the Home Civil Service, chair of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission and co-author of the report, said:

Brexit involves not just withdrawal from the European Union, but a fundamental shaping of the nation’s economic and social model. Universities need to be central to that conversation and help government reach out to parts of the country which have felt left behind by education and economic opportunity. This is our civic responsibility, and it needs to become core to our institutional values.

Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and co-author of the report, said: 

It will be impossible for the sector to fulfil the vision of higher education as a force for social good without a significant reshaping of funding, responsibilities and incentives. We offer some starting ideas here, but this realignment is essential if higher education is to help the nation grapple with the deep challenges it faces.

Natalie Day, Head of Policy and Strategy at Sheffield Hallam University and co-author of the report, said:

We hope this report provides Michelle Donelan MP, the new Universities Minister, with several positive ideas and opportunities for government and the sector to forge common cause in levelling up the UK economy.

Rachel Hewitt, Director of Policy and Advocacy at HEPI, said:

Recent years have shown some universities are not as closely attuned to their local communities as they thought they were. At the same time, they have been subjected to unprecedented levels of policy change by government, which has led to challenging competing priorities. This report provides a road map for universities to get back in touch with the places where they are based.

Place-based funding must be linked to the public’s priorities

This is an important and timely report examining ways the university sector can build its relevance to places socially and economically left behind.

Recent polling for the UPP Foundation found that people living in towns, cities and villages alike care most about issues such as housing, local NHS services and the high street, yet the polling also revealed public priorities are significantly different between regions.

While Westminster politicians may have good intentions it is incredibly difficult to design national schemes or programmes to level up disparate places, because their needs and challenges are based on the context of their locality.

Government should utilise the knowledge and capabilities of local institutions like universities to help drive the levelling up agenda.  While only 21% of people think their MPs are doing a good job in their local area, civic institutions such as sports clubs, cultural organisations, universities, charities, local business and hospitals are seen to be doing a better job for their communities. These are the organisations, embedded in their local communities, who will be key to revitalising towns and cities. They, unlike government departments in London, are more likely to understand the real needs of their communities.

With 59 universities pledging to develop a Civic University Agreement there’s real appetite amongst universities to support  ‘left behind’ places in their regions. However, just as decision making in a remote office in Whitehall is unlikely to deliver, neither will decision making in local institutions if they do not engage comprehensively in their communities.

Nationally we found that over a third of people (36%) have never visited their local university rising to 41% of C2DE social economic groups. To grow support with the public, and to ultimately be trusted to help deliver the levelling up agenda, universities and civil society more generally need to demonstrate value to all in society, not just those who typically use them.

Richard Brabner, Director of UPP Foundation

The UPP Foundation is a registered charity that offers grants to universities, charities and other higher education bodies. It aims to tackle the biggest issues facing the higher education sector across the UK. In recent years, as higher education has expanded, the burden of paying for a degree has shifted towards the individual. This presents difficulties in maintaining the ‘University for the Public Good’, as well as ensuring there is greater equity in going to, succeeding at and benefiting from the university experience. The UPP Foundation helps universities and the wider higher education sector overcome these challenges.

The UPP Foundation was created in 2016 by University Partnerships Programme (UPP), the UK’s leading provider of on-campus residential and academic accommodation infrastructure. UPP is the sole funder of the UPP Foundation, which is an independent charity and has its grants reviewed and authorised by a Board of Trustees. The UPP Foundation Civic University Commission published its final report in February 2019.

Polling was conducted by Public First a specialist public policy and research consultancy that helps organisations understand and influence public opinion through research and targeted communications campaign, and to craft policy ideas that Governments can realistically apply to difficult issues. Public First is a member of the British Polling Council and a company partner of the Market Research Society and abides by all the requirements of those institutions.

Fieldwork for the poll was carried out online between the 10th December-17th December 2019. Sample size was 2006 UK adults and the results are weighted by age, gender, region, Social Grade, 2017 General Election vote and 2016 EU Referendum vote. Target proportions are derived from census data and election results.

Results of the polling can be found here

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