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Universities across the UK have rapidly moved their learning, teaching and assessment online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented overhaul of traditional teaching practices has presented a major challenge to institutions, staff and students. In this Good Practice Briefing, HEi-know shows how some universities have responded to the situation.

Public positive about universities but question graduate work skills and value for money

A national poll of the public on their perceptions of universities has produced mixed results.

Research commissioned by Universities UK shows that when asked if they felt positively or negatively about British universities, nearly half of people said they were positive, with more than 30 per cent responding that they were neutral.

But the survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted by BritainThinks also shows that most people do not feel universities equip graduates with sufficient workplace skills, and half question whether investment in studying for a degree represents good value for money.

The poll and accompanying workshops held in eight locations across the country revealed that most people view universities as “irrelevant” to their lives and many think they have at best a neutral impact on their local community.

Over half of respondents (58 per cent) felt the higher education sector had a positive impact on the UK as a whole and the majority were aware that UK universities were globally recognised for their outstanding research. Research was seen as the single biggest benefit of universities.

Young people were generally more positive about higher education than those aged 65 plus and were more likely to disagree with the statement that degrees do not equip graduates with employability skills.

However, overall nearly 60 per cent of those polled felt that universities did not equip graduates with the skills they need to be successful in the workplace and almost half felt that the expense of going to university outweighed the benefits of doing so.

There was also a lack of appreciation of the impact of universities locally, with 50 per cent of respondents saying institutions had a negative or neutral effect on their local community.

Perception of UK universities was broadly similar across the devolved nations. In general, the Scottish were slightly more engaged, better informed and more positive towards universities.

The research concluded that there was a real opportunity to build pride in, and support for, the UK’s universities and that risks were associated with not building a positive counter-balancing narrative.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that among the positive responses, there were some thought-provoking challenges.

“Universities directly and indirectly touch most people’s lives but that isn’t always as clear as it should be,” he said. “My answer to that would be to look closely at what some of our newer, more locally-rooted institutions are doing and to learn from them. We may also, in the long run, want to stop the pretence that all universities can be world class in absolutely everything they do. Our institutions strive to be excellent at an international, national and regional level because that is what policymakers expect of them, but it is exceedingly hard to tick all three boxes simultaneously in the absence of limitless resources.”

Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said: “There is a myth that the public are sceptical about the merits of universities – and that an increasingly large number of young people think higher education is a waste of time. In fact, as this research shows, the opposite is true. The public are hugely positive towards universities and see the benefits of a university education.”

  

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