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HEi-think: UUK annual conference -- thoughts from HE leaders

University UK's annual conference, held at Sheffield Hallam University, kicked off the academic year with speeches and debates on a wide range of burning issues, including Brexit, fees and funding, overseas students, public perceptions of HE, value for money, freedom of speech, and student mental health. HEi-know asked Higher Education Policy Institute Director Nick Hillman, Staffordshire University Vice-Chancellor Professor Liz Barnes, and Lancaster University Vice-Chancellor Professor Mark Smith, to give their personal perspectives on the event and its themes.

Nick Hillman

Universities UK are in the midst of celebrating their 100th birthday. This provided a nice focus for their 2018 Annual Conference. But, instead of a telegram from Her Majesty the Queen, they received a warm speech from the Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah MP, and an even warmer one from one of his predecessors, the Rt Hon. the Lord David Willetts.

It was a particular pleasure to be back in Sheffield, where I spent much time as a teenager and which looked fantastic in the autumn sun. The minute you emerge from the railway station, you see how important Sheffield Hallam University is to the local community as the vista in front of you is covered in their clearly-marked buildings as well as businesses serving their students and staff. No wonder it’s Chair, Lord Kerslake, was asked to head up the important Civic University Commission established by the UPP Foundation. Hallam looked after us too, even serving hypodermic doughnuts, which was a new one on me (in a good way).

I attended my first UUK conference back in 2008, which I guess means that I have been to around 10 per cent of all their annual shindigs. As the average tenure of a vice chancellor is less than a decade, I have presumably been to more of them than almost all other attendees. They have always seemed, to me, useful occasions for hearing from others and discussing major issues facing the sector. That was the same this year, with sessions on issues as diverse as reducing student suicides, new technology and lessons from abroad.

In some ways, the annual get-together has changed little over the years, but it has become more professional. This year, for example, the speeches were interspersed with little films made by ITN about the strengths of our university sector. Sadly perhaps, even the accommodation was a notch up on the past – instead of putting attendees up in basic but characterful student bedrooms, we were instead accommodated in local business-style hotels. But, all in all, it was I think the best UUK conference I’ve been to.

In part, this was because of the range of issues, or known unknowns, we are waiting to be resolved and which we could therefore get our teeth into. The list is headed by Brexit, of course (although one speaker, an expert on public opinion, warned the universities that the public are fed up with the issue, wonder why Brexit hasn’t already happened and want to move on). Other major issues include the Migration Advisory Committee review of international students, the Augar review on Post-18 Education and the Office for National Statistics’ review of accounting for student loans.

Perhaps next year’s gathering will be deathly dull as all these difficult issues will have been satisfactorily and consensually resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Pigs might fly. But it is more likely that the Conference will be even more vital than this year’s one, and also more testy as the tricky issues are resolved one way or another.

There were some hints on the likely future direction of travel for those who searched hard enough. On the face of it, there was lots of positivity but little in the way of new announcements from either of the two keynote speakers, Sam Gyimah and Philip Augar. But, like ducks gliding slowly to the shore, the calm on the surface seemed to mask some effective paddling underneath. For example, the Minister said warm and soothing words about the contribution of international students to the UK that were so optimistic one could not imagine them coming out of the mouths of all of his colleagues in the past. Does this, perhaps, herald a change in the Government’s approach? And Philip Augar’s remarks about overbearing student debts made it sound, to me at least, as if a reduction in the headline tuition fee cap may still be a possibility.

At the end of the conference, as the vice-chancellors spread off back to their institutions around the country, rejuvenated by their discussions, I was left with one overwhelming thought: in the 100-year history of Universities UK, there have been few years so critically important for the future health of the UK universities than the academic year now getting underway.

Professor Liz Barnes

After a tough year I’m now more optimistic. We’re celebrating 100 years of UUK and the importance of our world class universities pervaded the discussions.

The challenges we face today are not new, although Brexit and March 29th looms large. The need to find a sustainable funding system ensuring fair access remains the biggest challenge. Maintaining our unit of resource is of concern, whilst also hoping for further support for part time and mature students and maintenance grants. Can this be addressed whilst also trying to resolve the problems of an under-funded FE system?

Our role as civic universities supporting regional priorities adding social, cultural and economic value is important. The diversity of technical, vocational and academic offers is crucial to meet the needs of businesses and society.

Our priority has to be addressing public concerns and build public trust. We need to demonstrate value for money by supporting all students to achieve their full potential. We have to provide better understanding of our rising degree outcomes to protect the integrity of our awards. This, alongside improving student mental health support and differences in attainment for BAME students.

Regardless of the outcome of Brexit, connection, internationalisation and collaboration is key. Together we must lobby for a better offer for international students and the provision of opportunities to stay and work.

To close, it was encouraging to hear our Minister Sam Gyimah endorse the critical role that universities have in the future of our country and for our young people:  "Going to University is worth it. … University is a rite of passage to learn and grow as a person". 

Professor Mark Smith

There were several key messages coming out of the UUK Annual meeting, with minister Gyimah being upbeat about our higher education.

He articulated HE’s value has several dimensions which includes its impact on social mobility, its underlying excellence by international standards, the contribution to local communities and the UK economy, as well as perhaps the more intangible value of all the ways university research helps us better understand our complex world. This is in stark contrast to the almost continual stream of negative stories from parts of the media that have created a somewhat depressing backdrop for HE in the last 18 months.

There was encouragement from the minister around the soon to appear Migration Advisory Committee report which could herald a rethink in the post-study visas for students. This lines up with the welcome UUK campaign to reassert the UK’s position as one of the most attractive destinations for international students to regain our market share position.

The meeting also reminded us of the immediate challenges that are confronting the sector. The key issues exercising the government are grade inflation and unconditional offers, although where the responsibility for leading the policy development on these topics remains somewhat opaque. Also lurking in the background there are the thorny issues over USS Pension reform, with a glimmer arising from the mood music coming out of the Joint Expert Panel, although the test will be how this gets converted into a solution when it appears. Also for England we await the outcomes of the Augar post-18 education and funding review, which might have profound consequences, since to paraphrase a former US President ‘it’s all about the value for money stupid’.

Sheffield Hallam University -- UUK conference venue
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