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Universities face the challenge of balancing local and global needs

Professor Liz Barnes CBE, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Staffordshire University, reflects on how universities can focus on responding to local needs while striving also to be a force for good nationally and globally. 


HE news is relatively quiet as we wait to find out what the Cabinet reshuffle and our new Ministers will bring.  So much so that our local Sentinel education reporter Kathie McInnes threw a pyjama party to create her news.

My thoughts have come from the Universities UK meeting in Glasgow and reflecting on the headlines about the new points-based visa system. John Swinney MSP Deputy First Minister, Scotland spoke of the importance of Glasgow’s Universities. His message was that Universities should strive to be a force for good both locally and globally: tackle global issues of today, but respond to local needs – outreach, engagement, giving back.

Staffordshire University, a Civic university, seeks to address local challenges working with schools, employers and local authorities. We have serious issues of deprivation and our student population is reflective of the challenged environment with over 40 per cent of our students presenting with multiple indices of disadvantage. However, I like nothing better than telling the stories of how we have changed lives – too many case studies to share, but a highlight is the students that have graduated that previously lived on the streets. We have a duty to change future prospects of people in our forgotten towns: ‘Talent is spread evenly across the country, opportunity is not’. Where you live will affect where you get to in life.

As a Civic university we want to support not only social mobility, but the growth of our local economy. Professor David Phoenix OBE, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University, blogged about the challenges of research and development versus local economic growth and the complexities of the different funding streams. The excellence measures of research do not necessarily drive working with local businesses and the public sector to tackle local issues. Now operating in an all-Conservative county, we are currently using this as an opportunity to work with our LEP in driving a regional digital infrastructure bid that will transform how people in the county live, work and play.  It is fantastic to see what can be achieved bringing together universities, local authorities and private businesses.

We will all be challenged with the reduction in immigration and migration. Stoke-on-Trent is a City that is only just beginning to see population growth for the first time in 60 years and we need to grow our workforce. However, if we are successful in implementing our digital infrastructure, we can begin to provide solutions to ‘filling the gaps’. Health technologies will provide mechanisms for managing health remotely and there will be tools that can reduce the burden of some social care needs. Scandinavia have already implemented approaches demonstrating the art of the possible. Agriculture has made great strides with technology, but there is much more that can be done through emerging technologies. Universities will play a major role – developing the capabilities of our communities, designing new technologies and growing our future workforce, but it will take time.

Of course, a key to growing our workforce in the UK is paying higher wages. The low pay for social care under-values the importance of this work. We all want to know that our mums, dads, families are well cared for: we need to place our trust in our carers. Maybe now is the time to consider a major review of how we deliver social care and develop a skills framework professionalising the service at all levels. I remember being involved in the development of the NHS ‘skills escalator’ when we began to explore new types of roles and extended roles of the existing workforce.  Could we replicate this approach working cross-sectors?

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, has posted a blog about how Governance is changing, and Welsh Universities have undertaken a review of their Governance. Gillian Camm, the adviser to the review, pushed universities to reflect on our social purpose, believing that maybe, as we have had to become more focused on the ‘bottom line’, we have lost sight of this. She talked of assessing ourselves against environmental, social and governance criteria (ESG) which has become common in the banking world. We all know the importance of getting it right and a set of values was shared against which we should assess how governance operates: trust, accountability, probity, transparency, engagement, challenge, competence.  However, for me, another key challenge is the lack of diversity of our Boards, not just ethnicity, but about cognitive diversity and the extent to which we reflect the population we serve. 

My weekend begins reflecting on the opportunities of our current landscape and the role Universities can play in providing solutions needed to address emerging challenges. But I also reflect on the weight of responsibility we carry in terms of how we serve our local communities, whilst tackling global challenges and providing our students with the best possible experience enabling them to achieve their full potential.

Professor Liz Barnes