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HE's challenge for 2017

Universities will need to show a sceptical government they continue to take seriously measures to improve effectiveness, says Nick Petford

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | December 27, 2016 | Facilities

It is essential we work as a sector to convince Government that universities have a key role to play in increasing UK productivity, says Nick Petford, Vice-Chancellor, University of Northampton

2016 will surely go down as the year dumbfounded experts discovered to their cost the wisdom of Victor Borge "Forecasting is always difficult, especially with regard to the future". Why then should pronouncements in 2017 be any more accurate? They won't of course but here goes anyway.  

Brexit will continue to dominate the HE agenda. But we need to stop talking the UK down. Self-reaffirming voices bemoaning the result in public and especially overseas won't change the outcome of ‪June 23 and risk adding fuel to the idea that the UK is somehow withdrawing from the global stage. This is a ridiculous proposition and not my reading of Brexit.

But it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we spend 2017 dwelling on negative geopolitical events that are largely outside the control of the sector. This is not to say there are no battles to be fought and won at home. Removing international students from the net migration target in 2017 would be a universally popular move and according to polls supported by the general public. The government's intransigence on this is baffling, matched only by the wildly optimistic growth forecasts in international student income reported in HEFCE's most recent financial summary of the sector. 

Self-reaffirming voices bemoaning the result in public and especially overseas won't change the outcome of ‪June 23 and risk adding fuel to the idea that the UK is somehow withdrawing from the global stage

It is essential we work as a sector to convince Government that universities have a key role to play in increasing UK productivity. The UK Research Institute offers the opportunity to build on our world-class research and innovation linked to the economy. But to achieve success we need to be more connected than ever to our stakeholders and politicians.

Arguments around autonomy notwithstanding, it is clear the majority of HE leaders (me included) failed to sense the mood of the country leading up to Brexit and risk looking detached and aloof. For example, how can a university balance claims to be an anchor institution supporting social mobility by recruiting say more white working class boys in areas where the Leave vote was 60% and above? We don't all live in Richmond upon Thames. This highlights another challenge, lack of diversity of thought in leadership teams and governing bodies. Equality and Diversity is often seen, for good reason, through a lens of race, gender and disability.

However, groupthink poses an ongoing challenge to the sector, not just as a contributor to poor management decisions but also in relation to restrictions on free speech, either as a consequence of the Prevent Duty or so-called 'safe spaces' on university campuses.

Finally universities will need to show a sceptical government they continue to take seriously measures to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Procurement is one area where more can be done, not just to save cost but also deliver social impact. Demonstrating relevance, so that universities are seen not just as being out for their own ends but delivering genuine societal benefit can only be good for all.

Read another opinion piece by Nick Petford, here.

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