Dear PM, here’s a must-do list…

Sector experts offer their advice for Liz Truss and her new Cabinet on some of the biggest issues facing UK universities, from finances and R&D to culture wars and common ground

September 15, 2022
 Liz Truss speaking
Source: Getty

Among the commitments made by Liz Truss during her summer-long audition to become the UK’s fourth prime minister in six years was the pledge that she would be the “education prime minister”.

Whether this survives contact with reality remains to be seen – education was not among the three immediate priorities set out by Truss on her first day in the job.

But what, realistically, could and should the new government do before the next general election in 2024, as far as higher education is concerned?

In the spirit of constructive engagement, and the hope that the new administration has not yet had its fill of experts, I asked some of the sector’s most insightful commentators for their advice for Truss and her new Cabinet, on some of the biggest issues facing universities:

University finances

Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal, University of Glasgow

“The new prime minister should ask the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to join forces with the Treasury to provide an integrated and clear understanding of financial sustainability for the sector.

“There is little sense that government has an overall picture of what may happen in the next decade to the financial health of a sector which is strategically important to the future of the UK economy.

“Inflation will seriously erode the unit of resource in teaching and the purchasing power of government research funding.

“Government needs to have a clear vision of what it thinks the shape of the sector should be, and how financial sustainability can be managed, especially how demand from international students could be impacted by both geopolitical trends and world macroeconomic trends in the next few years.

“It should seriously think about ‘stress testing’ the sector and understanding what the consequences could be of sudden future shocks.”

Science and research

James Wilsdon, director, Research on Research Institute

“I see two big priorities. First, despite all the pressures on budgets, to reconfirm the existing R&D allocations (including the funds for association to Horizon Europe – whether or not that now happens). Then to set out a clear path for R&D investment and growth from 2025 onwards.

“Second, to end the toxic uncertainty over Horizon. Increasingly, and regrettably, it seems that this is only likely to be achieved by a rapid and decisive pivot to Plan B.

“Any Plan B move now should be accompanied by a public acknowledgement that it’s a suboptimal outcome (rather than tone-deaf bragging about how the UK can go it alone); and by an explicit commitment to try to bring the UK back into association with the next EU framework programme.”

Social mobility

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility, University of Exeter

“Leave the cap off university numbers. A golden rule of social mobility is that fewer degree places mean fewer poorer students – gains in access have come when we have expanded the sector.

“The quid pro quo of this is that universities could be far more transparent and consistent in their admissions processes – being clear about how they define disadvantage, what actual grades are offered to incoming students and what support they provide when they enrol.

“The government should also support our proposed national programme of university-led tutoring, which has the potential to recruit tens of thousands of students as teacher-trained tutors.

“Finally, post-qualifications admissions. The clearing process brought home to me how many life-defining decisions are made in a blink of an eye. It is no surprise that one in three students regrets their choice of degree. This would also be needed for Truss to implement her Oxbridge idea [to offer an interview to every A-level student who achieves the highest possible grades].”

The culture wars

Diana Beech, chief executive, London Higher

“The new Cabinet has only two years to gain voters’ confidence. That means, instead of fanning the flames of a needless culture war, they would do well to look at what universities up and down the country can do to promote democratic debate and discussion.

“In 2019, the University of Worcester held a ‘democracy day’ where parliamentarians from across the political spectrum had the opportunity to engage in discussion about the big political questions with an audience from across the university and local area.

“Encouraging annual democracy days such as these across all UK universities, and ensuring strong Conservative representation at each event, would not only help to reframe higher education institutions as trusted spaces of open democratic debate but prevent accusations of political bias.”

Sector-government relations

Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor, Sheffield Hallam University

“Universities, drivers of aspiration, achievement, innovation and prosperity, should be a natural ally for any government.

“But in practice, there’s always suspicion between the two: for universities, government never quite produces enough resource; for government, universities are a bit too unruly, and they always leaven their contributions with critical comment.

“So what can be achieved? Let’s aim for mutual respect, which doesn’t mean uncritical admiration; let’s ask government to recognise that the heavy lifting on social mobility is done in mid-tariff and lower-tariff universities; let’s ask government to commit to understanding the diversity and the complexity of the sector.

“Let’s ask universities to recognise that in a cost-of-living crisis, they will not be government’s top priority, and to work constructively with others to make a real difference.”

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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