The new President of Universities UK (UUK) has said that the sector must do more to engage and to explain the role of universities and 'fight back against negative and inaccurate commentary', if it is to win back the public’s trust.

Giving her first speech as President of Universities UK, Professor Janet Beer, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, also called for changes to be made to the undergraduate funding system in England to ensure it is 'better understood' and that it feels 'fairer to our students and their families'.

In her keynote speech to university leaders at Universities UK’s annual members’ conference, she said: “Universities make a unique contribution to our society wherever they are in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They change the lives of individuals, they improve livelihoods and opportunities in regions, and they contribute to the peace, prosperity and productivity of our nation.

“We need to make these positive attributes more visible, to be louder and prouder about our achievements – and those of our students and staff – to drown out the often-ill-informed noise about the sector.

The Universities UK annual conference, taking place this year at Brunel University London, is the largest annual gathering of university vice-chancellors, with over 100 university leaders and other key figures from the university sector in attendance. Universities Minister Jo Johnson MP also addressed delegates during the same conference session on Thursday morning.

Professor Beer said that engaging with the public also included being open and transparent on the issue of vice-chancellors’ pay.

She said: “It is understandable that high pay is questioned and it is right to expect that the process for determining pay for senior staff is rigorous and the decision-making process is transparent. It is also reasonable to expect that decisions are explained and justified.

“I understand that our colleagues at the Committee of University Chairs are considering what further guidance could be shared with our governing councils to support them in meeting these important expectations.”

Addressing the issue of tuition fees and loans in England, Professor Beer said: “Let me start by saying that I believe the current undergraduate funding system in England is not broken. Indeed, the OECD described the English system as ‘one of the few countries to have figured out a sustainable approach to higher education finance’.

“The strong system we have in England provides sustainable funding for universities, promotes access for students from all backgrounds, provides employers with the skilled graduates our economy needs and is highly progressive. But it needs to be better understood and, crucially, it needs to feel fairer to our students and their families.”

Based on agreement at the Universities UK board, she said that “UUK therefore would like to work with government to consider the option of providing targeted maintenance grants for those most in need of this support”.

She said that government should also “consider reducing the interest rate payable, not for all, but specifically for low and middle-income earners through changes in earning thresholds to which interest rates apply”.

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