Coronavirus: ‘Universities will be changed forever’, says Sir Anthony Seldon

There is an opportunity for the sector to emerge with ‘moral authority’ and ‘popular respect’, the vice-chancellor says

UK universities can emerge from the coronavirus epidemic with “moral authority” and “popular respect”, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham says – but only if the sector lays aside competition and speaks with one voice.

In an opinion piece for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) published today, Sir Anthony Seldon says: “Universities will be changed forever by the coronavirus crisis and its aftermath.

“The crisis will test our universities and their leadership to the hilt. We mustn’t waste this opportunity.”

If institutions rise to the challenge, Sir Anthony predicts: “The prize is coming out of it with more moral authority, popular respect and national leadership than ever before. I am confident that the opportunity will not go to waste.”

Coronavirus: economic impact

In a wide-ranging piece, the university chief warns that the economic impact of the pandemic threatens “the very diversity of our HE sector”, and could trigger the closure of smaller institutions in economically deprived parts of the country.

“What none of us knows is how deeply coronavirus will affect us, and whether all universities will be able to survive, at least as independent institutions.”

Sir Anthony used his article to urge the sector to support those institutions at risk.

“Blithely letting some universities go to the wall is irresponsible, when many of those most under threat are the beating hearts of troubled communities high in deprivation and cultural capital, and low in employment and school achievement. Partnerships between strong and challenged universities should now be blossoming,” he says.

This collaboration should extend to student recruitment, Sir Anthony advises, and large universities should not “gobble up even more students this September” because it might deprive small institutions of their intake.

Read more: Doing their bit: UK universities leap into action during Covid-19 crisis

Coronavirus: civic university

The University of Buckingham chief also warns that, in some parts of the country, the pandemic may leave local economies decimated. In that event, universities may be one of only a handful of large employers left in some towns. “We need to build on the opportunities that the crisis has provided to show that every university is a civic university.”

Universities have been supporting their towns and cities in various ways through the coronavirus pandemic.

The University of Nottingham reported on Friday 20 March it had located 16 PCR testing machines (including three from Nottingham Trent) to support the NHS with national coronavirus testing.

Related news: Coronavirus: medical students ride to the rescue

At UCL, medical students and academics have volunteered to help on hospital wards, and undergraduates are volunteering to babysit the children of healthcare workers.

Sir Anthony appeals to universities to use the opportunity to speak with a united voice.

“There is nothing like a crisis to remind divergent voices of a common sense of purpose, and to bring about enduring change.

“Universities have shown the country in the crisis that the research they undertake, the medical professionals they educate and the communal support they provide, are at the core of getting the country through.

“They are lending equipment, facilities and expertise to the national effort and local communities, opening bioscience labs for coronavirus testing and letting their chemistry labs be used to make hand sanitiser.

“Universities UK (UUK) has far-reaching plans, including support for the vulnerable in local communities and meeting key skills gaps, to extend the ways that universities can help still further.”

You might also like: Can universities do more for their towns?

He urges vice-chancellors “to rally around UUK’s lead” and help “co-ordinate sector-wide efforts”, in order to strengthen their collective voice in government and the media.

Coronavirus: ‘moral authority’

The Office for Students will be more “flexible and empathetic after the crisis”, Sir Anthony predicts. He suggests their interventions in the sector have “too often [been] shrill and abrasive” and anticipates that the regulator could become “benign” in the post-coronavirus era.

After the worst of the virus has passed, Sir Anthony proposes universities address the thorny issue of vice-chancellors’ pay.

“If this isn’t the moment for vice-chancellors to rise up and say, ‘we have been paid too much and it is out of step’, when will be? It clearly is not right for some vice-chancellors to be paid three times more than the very cabinet ministers, the permanent secretaries running great Whitehall departments and the officials whose expert guidance is steering the country to safety.”

Universities should also use the aftermath to “set the agenda in asserting that education goes far beyond income earning potential”.

“UUK has led the national debate on mental health under John de Pury and Steve West. We need to go further and embrace positive psychology, which builds the capacity of students and staff to thrive, and to come through adversity on top,” Sir Anthony writes, adding: “The post-coronavirus economy and society will need far more rounded people”.

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