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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.

Rethinking universities from the outside in

Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.

Is the government missing the real 'levelling up' value of HE?

The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.

Is the government missing the real 'levelling up' value of HE?

The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.

A week is a long time in politics, and it has certainly been an interesting week for higher education and the roles that universities could play in the post-Covid economic and social recovery of Britain.

The creative arts play an important economic and employment role for the British economy, in both post-industrial and burgeoning localities. Music alone was worth circa £6 billion to the UK economy in 2019, so it is understandable that proposed cuts by the Office for Students, which impact negatively on arts subjects, have raised concerns. The OfS, however, was quick to correct claims that 50 per cent of overall funding for arts subjects at universities will be cut from this autumn, clarifying that the proposed reforms would only affect a small proportion of higher education institutions’ income of around £243 per full-time student per year and not tuition fees per se.

Staffordshire is known as the ‘creative county’ and as a university we have carried that legacy for more than 100 years through a range of courses in art and design, drama and music. I echo critics who pointed to the wider strategic significance of the arts not being designated among the government’s strategic priorities and the knock-on implications this could have for student and societal perceptions of these subjects. Given the government ‘archived’ the Industrial Strategy earlier this year and has left something of a void in the BEIS portfolio, this sleight of hand raises the issue of where strategic sectoral priorities ultimately lie, beyond the ideological mantra of ‘levelling up’.

On this, the PM this week appointed a former senior Treasury aide to be his chief adviser on ‘levelling up’ to tackle concerns in Whitehall that few know what the slogan is supposed to mean. Neil O’Brien, the Conservative MP for Harborough, will oversee the programme that many recently elected Conservatives believe is critical to their re-election. O’Brien will be working on a levelling up White Paper, to be published later this year, which will probably replace the previous commitment to an English Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper.

There has been much speculation as to what all this means for higher education. An important piece in WonkHE by Jim Dickinson debated whether this policy cluelessness is a threat to universities or an opportunity to redefine our purpose. The threat comes first from reading a crude North-South of geography and not understanding the complex linkages between people and place. London Higher chief executive Diana Beech warns that government plans to axe the London weighting for universities in the capital could work against the levelling up ambitions for the rest of the country, by removing routes to widening access, participation, and social inclusion.

Second, given an economic spotlight shining on all sectors, critics fear that O’Brien’s previous statements on the Augar Review could receive amplification. When measured on narrow graduate earning data and links then made to ‘low-quality’ courses, O’Brien has previously questioned whether parts of HE helps our learners ‘economically’. The technical route and further education unquestionably then enter the equation as the policy alternative for an increasing number of learners.

I agree with Anulika Ajufo, chair of the board of governors at University of East London, that there should be more focus on the ‘transformative potential of the university experience’. At Staffordshire University, we see daily how higher education can transform lives with many of our students the first in their family to come to university. While not all will enter high earning careers, they leave us with a respected qualification and the confidence to make a valued contribution to society.

Innovation theorist and independent science adviser Richard Jones is more positive about the levelling up opportunities for HE. For Jones, levelling up allows a ‘whole city’ and ‘whole region’ approach. Universities can play a role in joining up innovation and skills to boost productivity, particularly by increased employer demand for graduates.

Northern Gritstone, created by the universities of Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, was announced this week to aim to do just this. It will raise up to £500 million to help turn ideas and research developed at the three redbrick institutions into start-up companies and to support existing high-tech businesses linked to the universities. The hope is that it will interest much larger international investors, in the process levelling up research and development opportunities to match the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge, and University College London.

As a Civic University, Staffordshire University also strives to support the local economy and retain graduate talent. Our Innovation Enterprise Zone, for example, encourages collaboration between academia and industry, while providing opportunities for students to gain vital work experience which often lead to job opportunities. The Catalyst Building, a £42 million development due to open this year, will also act as a ‘digital skills and apprenticeships hub’ building on our partnerships with businesses across the region.

For me, it is initiatives like this that provide real hope for ‘levelling up’ opportunities in higher education and beyond.