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Minister urges universities to tackle negative public perceptions

Sam Gyimah

Universities must do more to win the public’s trust and battle negative perceptions over key issues such as the value of the courses they provide and their contribution to the UK economy, delegates at Universities UK’s annual conference were told.

Both universities minister Sam Gyimah and UUK President Professor Janet Beer said that while most members of the public as well as policymakers held universities in high regard, institutions still needed to be more open and engaged and provide clearer information and evidence on what they deliver and how they enhance people’s lives and prospects and boost the UK’s economy and its standing across the world.

Their comments came as new research commissioned by UUK suggests that while most of the general public are positive or neutral about universities, most have very little understanding of what the public benefits of HE institutions are, and the value of a degree is being questioned.

Gyimah said there were no doubt that a degree still represented a good investment, both for students and taxpayers, and it was right to make a “full-throated defence of the value of university education as a whole”.

But he warned there were two particular areas where universities needed to be “vigilant” if they are to earn and retain the public’s trust. The first of these was on value for money.

“If the perception grows that universities are offering threadbare courses, or prioritising getting bums on seats over quality, the credibility of the HE sector as a whole will suffer. Likewise if universities see applicants as commodities, and neglect the student experience or their mental health needs. Or if universities are seen as hotbeds of unjustified high salaries,” he said.

The other big risk for universities was “becoming disconnected from the wider world”, he said.

“If universities are seen as ideological echo chambers; if research is seen as disconnected from the wider world; if universities are seen as distant from their communities, again, their mission will be compromised and their credibility will suffer.”

The minister acknowledged that the best universities are not ivory towers, and still less were they “left wing madrassas” as suggested by the journalist Toby Young.

“But ideological diversity, strong research cultures, engagement with the wider world, and fair access are ongoing battles – and the price of failure will be very high,” he warned.

There was also a public misperception of what universities offer, with many unaware of the availability and value of vocational courses, he suggested.

He told journalists: “There is a big misperception and misunderstanding of what universities offer and what value students can get out of them. Universities have an obligation to help students navigate that.”

Professor Beer agreed that while research indicated three quarters of the public are proud of universities, institutions needed to respond to this by “being more open and engaged, by listening to the public and talking about the issues they want to know about, and by having conversations in the places where they spend time – whether that is in the local media, online or face-to-face.”

She called on individual vice-chancellors to be more visible on “hot topics” in the coming year, including explaining how fees are spent and how courses are priced; how decision are made on senior staff pay; and explaining the careful consideration universities must give to ensure freedom of speech on campuses.

Interim findings of a public poll commissioned by UUK show that nearly three quarters of people think that holding a degree is less impressive now because there are more graduates, and over 60 per cent thought the cost of a degree was only worth it if it led to getting a better job. Almost half (47 per cent) felt the cost of going to university outweighed the benefits, and that degrees do not equip graduates with the skills they need to be successful in the workplace (48 per cent).

The research suggests many members of the public now perceive universities as businesses motivated largely by profit, and driving the marketization agenda. Over a quarter responding to the poll did not know whether universities played a significant role in supporting businesses and employers.

Professor Beer said that in the coming 12 months UUK will play its part in helping to improve public perceptions, for example by tackling the notion that universities are “giving away” Firsts and 2:1s by gathering evidence on factors affecting “grade inflation”; and taking a lead in revising the concordat to support research integrity and promoting “all that is good about a research career”.


*Proposals from Universities UK for a new "global talent visa" that would allow international students to stay in the UK and work for up to two years after graduation have won support from universities minister Sam Gyimah.

Speaking at the UUK conference and afterwards to journalists, the minister said he welcomed the "fresh thinking" in the proposals, and indicated he had spoken about it to key members of the Migration Advisory Committee which is soon to produce a report on the impact of overseas students on the UK.

He also called for a more "open approach" to international students, adding: "“I am concerned by our current international position. But there is an opportunity for us, using evidence coming from the MAC report, but also looking at what our ambition is as a country and making sure that our policy action matches that ambition.”


*Universities UK and PAPYRUS, the UK’s national charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide, have today published new guidance to help university leaders prevent student suicides.

The guide includes advice on developing a strategy focused specifically on suicide prevention, covering:

  • Steps to prevent student suicide
  • Intervening when students get into difficulties
  • Best practice for responding to student suicides
  • Case studies on approaches to suicide prevention through partnership working
  • Checklist highlighting steps university leaders can take to make their communities safer

Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of UWE Bristol and Chair of UUK’s Mental Health in Higher Education Advisory Group, said: “When students take their own lives, it has a profound impact on family, friends, staff and students. This new guide offers practical advice on understanding and preventing suicide, as well as guidance on how best to support those most affected.

“We urge university leaders to work with their student support services to develop a strategy which focuses on preventing, intervening, and responding to suicide as part of an overall mental health strategy. Students and staff must be at the centre of this, and senior leadership within universities must build on their relationships with local authorities and the NHS to achieve real change.”