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Government urged to support universities to drive recovery of communities and the economy

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University leaders gather for the first time post-pandemic to consider ‘a new chapter’ for higher education 

The new president of Universities UK (@UniversitiesUK) will this week use his inaugural speech to emphasise the central role that universities can play in the post pandemic recovery of communities and the economy, but will issue a stark reminder to government that the wrong policy decisions could derail these efforts.

As the economy rebuilds from the impact of Covid, a supply of highly educated and skilled people will be essential to business, public services and communities alike. Professor Steve West CBE will emphasise how policy and funding which creates the conditions for universities to flourish can help ensure anyone with the potential to succeed at university can do so, in turn benefiting the economy and wider society.

But Professor West – Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England Bristol – will also caution against political decisions in the months ahead that would constrain the government’s levelling up agenda.

Speaking on Thursday (9 September) at the Universities UK annual conference – the first time the higher education sector has gathered in 18 months – he will call on government to be brave and bold in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, saying:

“The stakes are high. The right policy decisions can ensure that anyone with the potential and ability to succeed at university can do so and deliver the supply of talented, highly educated, skilled people that business, public services, and communities need. But the wrong decisions may constrain, damage and set back the very towns, cities, and regions that the government most wants to level up, slowing our recovery and delaying our push towards an inclusive, prosperous global Britain.”

Professor West will touch upon the future of learning in the post-Covid era. Saying that “coronavirus has ripped up the playbook” he urged the sector and government to take shared responsibility for the opportunity to write a new chapter for higher education.

Highlighting student feedback on the advantages of some digital developments alongside the desire for an in-person learning experience, he will add:

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“In education – as in all other areas of our lives – we must not simply revert to how things were before.”

Universities are working hard on their plans for the start of term to safely welcome staff and students back to campus, where they will benefit from the opportunity to have a wide variety of in-person contact and activities once more.

Professor West’s speech will give a strong message to students, their parents and government that universities are ready to do this safely and securely, working closely with local NHS and public health partners.

Efforts to strongly encourage students to get vaccinated without delay are a critical priority for universities. With vaccine hesitancy very low among the student age group, promoting uptake and making it as easy as possible to get a jab is the key focus. Universities are using incentive schemes, student ambassadors and a range of direct communications to emphasize the huge importance of this to students. In partnership with the NHS, pop-up vaccinations clinics and vaccination buses will be in place for students at the start of term to get their second jab, along with local walk-in centres, GPs and pharmacies.

On behalf of the 140 universities UUK represents, Professor West will say to students and staff alike as the return to campus begins:

“We pledge to them that we are doing all we can to give them the university and life experiences they want and deserve. It is a transformative period of their lives and we owe it to them to deliver the best opportunities we can.”

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