Building our knowledge economy

Managing Editor Hannah Oakman visited the University Alliance’s London HQ to meet its new CEO Maddalaine Ansell

With the claim to be educating 21% of all students in the UK (including 22% of all undergraduates on STEM courses), and a turnover of £3.7bn, the University Alliance, the body representing 20 universities across the UK, has a vitally important role within the UK’s HE sector. Today, with its three-pronged focus on connecting research and growth, transforming the economy with high skilled workers from across society, and boosting the role of universities within the UK’s innovation-based economy, the University Alliance is constantly busy evolving and growing to meet these goals. 


Maddalaine Ansell was appointed as new Chief Executive Office in January 2015. Among other roles, she most recently worked as Deputy Director, International Knowledge and Innovation, for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Here she explains more about the journey University Alliance is set to undertake in the future…

What are your main priorities for the University Alliance over the next 12 months?

There are three main objectives. First is to really think about our brand. Increasingly, our universities want membership of the University Alliance to say something about the kind of institutions they are.

Within this, we’ve identified five core values: strong engagement with industry and professions; leadership of regional strategies for growth; an enterprising and innovative spirit; adding value to students coming to university from non-traditional backgrounds; and finally having an international footprint and outlook. The latter is about attracting international students and creating an international feel on campus, transnational education partnerships with other universities overseas and about research collaborations. 

The second is creating a real voice for universities with similar policy views to interact with government; that’s what our recent, ‘Evolve, Connect, Succeed’ report was really about; we think research excellence should be funded wherever it’s found.

The third point is that our universities are very interested in us facilitating collective activity. The most recent example is our Doctoral Training Alliance in applied bio-sciences, a cohort for which will start this Autumn. It’s about our universities getting together to ensure they can offer a varied and truly excellent post-doctoral course and getting graduates are ready for industry.

How will you experience from working within BIS help you in this role?

BIS has a policy for business, research, higher education and innovation all under one roof. For our group of universities, the recognition of the role they play in delivering skills and knowledge to industry is a very important part of what they do. My experience of BIS is very helpful for this, along with my lobbying skills and understanding of how government works in reality.

What do you feel are the real benefits for a university of being a member?

Since I joined, we’ve been visiting all our member universities to find out what they want. Some like the opportunity to network and discuss ideas with like-minded vice-chancellors. They feel there is a set of important policy messages which they want us to push on their behalf. The fiscal environment is tight and universities, like everyone else, have to demonstrate they are giving the maximum return on public investment – and are best able to do this through collaboration and asset sharing.

What are you really hoping for from the next government regarding HE policy?

We hope the next government will continue to see the importance of universities to UK competitiveness and are willing to work with the sector to see how they can design and implement policies to support this. This includes making sure that the fees regime does everything it’s supposed to do, creating efficient investment for universities and a fair balance between the tax payer and the students who should eventually benefit. We’re looking, with interest, at the next government’s take on post-graduate support. I cannot see a successful future for the UK which doesn’t include backing our universities.

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