Profile: Universities UK’s chief executive, Alistair Jarvis

Two years into his tenure as Universities UK’s chief executive, Alistair Jarvis thinks the sector’s proven resilience will continue to be tested. Interview by Paddy Smith

Alistair Jarvis: CV

Born: Mansfield, 1980 (but grew up in Nottingham in early years)

Education: BA (first class) in politics and government, University of Kent; PG Dip in management, University of Leicester; PG Dip in higher education, Institute of Education, UCL

What would you have done if not education? Investigative journalism

Best leadership advice: Listen to and learn from others. Be ambitious about what you can achieve but pragmatic about how you achieve it.

Universities UK (UUK) operates from Woburn House, a large and labyrinthine building in London’s Tavistock Square, a stone’s throw from its original home in Gordon Square. This is the address from which Alistair Jarvis, now two years into the role of chief executive, is trying to mesh the gears of politics and universities, simultaneously representing UUK’s 136 members while feeding back from the machinations of government.

During our meeting, there is a dissonant urban soundtrack coming through the open window: squealing taxi brakes, aircraft, rumbling buses, police sirens and a constant metallic clanking from a nearby construction site. Jarvis seems undistracted. Perhaps he is used to it. Or perhaps this is the “clear sense of direction and focus” he thinks is essential to the role.

“You need patience and pragmatism,” he says. “My approach is to be ambitious about where I want to be, but pragmatic about how we get there.”

Interestingly the ‘woburn’ of Woburn House has its roots in the old English for a crooked stream. And that seems to be the way that universities must reach consensus. “There are just too many variables – external, internal, with our membership, with wider politics – for it to be realistic to say this is what the world should look like and I’m going to change it like this,” he admits.

“But what you certainly can do is say ‘We want to get here, we want to achieve this, but we need to think of the path to it,’ because the path to it is rarely a straight line.”

And the path to success has rarely looked as crooked as it does now. So while Jarvis is keen to press home the idea that “people overplay the differences and splits because on so many of the big issues there’s a lot of consensus”, he also sees the complexities in the developing landscape of higher education.

“I’ve come into the job at a time of extreme political turmoil. We’ve got a world where there is increased polarisation in politics.” He rolls out examples: the major parties in the UK, the US, Russia, Europe. “Of course,” he adds, “populism means partly challenging people who are perceived to be elites, and particularly institutions, and universities are perceived to be elite institutions, so that’s a real challenge.”

There is no single issue that UUK has done more work in over the past five years than immigration

The ongoing lack of a dominant party in British politics isn’t helping. “The parties are looking for small bits of political advantage and therefore making hay at the expense of universities is very tempting for them, which means we do get a battering sometimes for things which are a little bit unfair.

“Also there’s a lack of long-term thinking and far more short-term thinking, which is a logical political response to the current situation but it doesn’t make it easy for universities. You’ve got a right [wing] that taxes universities because we’re seen as too left wing, too public sector and not focused enough on the economy and a left that attacks universities because we’re too marketised, we charge fees and we’re too focused on the economy.

“At the same time, you have to recognise there are problems and challenges where universities need to improve. Some of that political bashing, and indeed media bashing – you’ve got to separate the legitimate criticism, of which there is certainly some, from the unfair attacks.”

Jarvis does seem to have a devilish number of plates to keep spinning. And while that’s not new – higher education is a many-headed beast that is deeply and mutually entwined with politics and communities – he feels that the current environment makes it even harder to plan.

Finding a way through

“Historically, universities would be able to set out plans, budgets for a number of years ahead and be relatively certain of the direction of travel. But the combination of increased market forces within the sector, fluctuations of international student demand, Brexit, funding reviews, increased costs for pensions – you add all those things together and it’s really hard.

“The common question I get asked is ‘what’s the biggest challenge facing the sector at the moment?’ and the biggest challenge or uncertainty is not any one of those things because universities are resilient, adaptable. There are universities that have lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years and faced many perils and challenges and I think the vast majority of universities in the sector will ride out whatever difficult policy, difficult financial environment is put in front of them. They’ll find a way through, they’ll adapt, they’ll change.

“But there isn’t time to do that at a slow pace, that’s something you have to do quite quickly. And I think what feels unique at the moment – and certainly I’ve been working in or around universities for about 20 years now – is the quantity of challenges, when you bring them together, the uncertainty that creates.”

And what does the membership – made up of the vice-chancellors of UK universities – think are the big challenges? What are their major concerns?

There are four, in no particular order. “Brexit-related challenges: what is the implication of Brexit on the sector and how do we find a way through that ensures that the good things we have for our membership of the European Union we can maintain and where we can’t maintain them, can we replace them with something as good or better or different?

“Then funding-related issues. The Augar review being the big one in England, of course, but there are different challenges in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. There is also research and innovation funding and the journey towards 2.4% of GDP – so it’s how do we get research funding up to that level.”

Do the Conservatives really want to be the party telling GCSE students who want to go to university they won’t go? It’s a tough message

Jarvis counts off another finger. “Immigration policy, and there is no single issue that UUK has done more work in over the past five years, on many different layers for staff and students. And we have a number of priorities there, but the big one is post-study work visas for international students. If you look at the numbers of international students going through the UK against other countries that attract large numbers of international students, our market share is falling and falling and falling, and that’s primarily because most of our competitors have a more welcoming offer for international students. They allow them to stay after they study for usually around two years.

“On all other factors we rate extremely highly. International students love coming here, they enjoy their experiences, they rate UK higher education very highly, our universities benefit, other students benefit. Interestingly all the research shows that home students benefit from having significant numbers of diverse international students. Obviously you know the arguments about economies benefiting, society benefiting. But we’re being held back by immigration policy. And then there are a number of other immigration issues relating to leaving the European Union and there are also staffing issues – staff immigration issues. So immigration is a priority.

“The fourth issue is a basket of issues that are all student experience-related issues. And they’re hard to… I’m dividing them very broadly into student experience issues and they are everything from one extreme – how do you better support and improve student mental health – through to how do you cater for diverse student bodies. How do you deal with politically difficult issues like grade inflation? How do you deal with the gap in attainment between BAME students and white students.

“What’s interesting about this is they are often social – societal – issues that play out in university campuses. So harassment issues are not a university thing, they’re a society thing, but actually they play out hugely at universities and universities could take a lead in being ahead of society with these issues. Mental health issues: serious mental health problems and indeed suicides are higher in the non-university population than in the university population but they play out very acutely and are very specific challenges on university campuses.

So there’s a whole range of student issues – value for money would be another one I would put in that category.”

The Augar question

Those four pillars contain enough to unpack to fill an interview slot many times the size of the one available. But the Augar review is the only one that is particular to education. Shrouded as it is in uncertainty about what it will recommend and when, what is Jarvis’s best guess?

We don’t just slavishly represent what universities want us to say. We deliberately position ourselves between the sector and government

A long pause follows. “Um…” A second long pause. He looks thoughtfully towards the window, from which the hum of road and air travel drifts alongside the percussive sounds from the construction site.
“I think there is a risk that the panel recommends some rebalancing of funding between students and government, so a reduction in fees but an increase in government funding. And then the increase in government funding doesn’t come.

“I have no ideological attachment to a certain fee level. What I don’t want to see is a falling university resource. Because the moment you have less funding per student that means bigger class sizes, poorer facilities, worse student experience and I don’t want to see that happening, and it’s bad for students.

“My fear from Augar is that, whatever the good intentions are, what actually comes through is not what they had in mind.

“The other fear I have is any limits on access to university. So if you cut the tuition fee and bring back considerable teaching grants to replace them, that is only possible if you put a cap on student numbers because the Treasury will not allow an open-ended spending curve. Because if numbers grow (the demographics show there will be 300,000 additional university places over the next 10 years), which means a very fast-growing cost to the Treasury, which means you then have to put a limit on access. You limit access and it affects social mobility.

“As we know, the sharp end of the classes will be the ones who ultimately get in if there are limited numbers. And I do not want a university system that is for the elite. I think anyone who has the potential to benefit from universities should be able to go to university. And I’m worried that we will have a system in the future that has less resource per student, so a poorer student experience and limited access so we go back to the days where the quality of university education is poorer and access is restricted.

“By the way, I don’t think either of those are the intentions of the Augar review and certainly my engagement with them is they have positive intentions and they are trying to look at how they improve not just the university sector but the wider educational system and I also think there should be greater investment in further education. Reduced funding to university and restricting access benefits nobody. The other real fear I have is the impact on communities, because if you’ve got a university in ‘X’ town or city that’s doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of social mobility, getting people into university who wouldn’t have had those experiences in the past, is a big supplier of jobs in the local community, and is supporting business and then that university is shrunk, the whole community and economy suffers massively.

“I do fear what may come and particularly today in a world of populist politics when politics is so uncertain at the moment that someone may make a quick, knee-jerk policy decision that has long-term damage.

Politics of change

Does Jarvis think policy decisions will come quickly after the report? This time there is no hesitation. “No,” he says, firmly. “I would be amazed if a formal response came from government until a spending review, and is a spending review really going to be done by a government when the prime minister is changing soon? I would be very surprised if the current prime minister will be in charge for the next spending review. And what does a new prime minister do with a politically difficult review that was commissioned by a predecessor?

“The politics of all that is potentially very difficult for the Conservative party because if they do reduce funding to universities, that shrinks universities, having an effect on communities, jobs are lost, but also they restrict access. Do they really want to be the party telling GCSE students now that some of them who have aspirations to go to university won’t go? It’s a tough message. I think there was a thought when they set this up that there would be some real political advantage but when you look at the hard policy recommendations, they don’t actually look particularly attractive. And a lower fee benefits middle- to high-end graduates. It doesn’t put more cash in students’ pockets.”

Realising he has become animated, Jarvis pauses. “Sorry,” he grins, “I probably went on a bit of a rant there.”

If he is as passionate about the other 50 to 60 issues on which UUK is working at any given time, you would imagine him to be burned out. Yet, admittedly fresh from a holiday, he appears collected, almost breezy, for most of the interview. He must have a lot on his plate?

“In terms of functions, there are dozens of things we do, but probably the two largest are…” he tails off, recalibrating the sentence to encompass the complexity in simple terms. “There’s influencing policy, and that’s trying to create a policy-funding environment where universities can thrive and that has lots of facets to it, but two major facets. One is trying to advance and develop new policy ideas and convince people to move policy in a positive direction. But also all the stuff you don’t see which is the stopping the bad stuff from happening. And actually we spend just as much time, probably, on trying to stop things that would damage universities from happening. So it’s trying to develop and defend.

“The other major function is developing, sharing information, guidance, good practice, across the sector. We’ve got 136 members. They’re all autonomous institutions. They all have different ways of doing things, but there are so many cross-sector challenges and often cross-sector approaches or cross-sector learning can be really helpful.

“Our raison d’être is that there is a belief in the sector that there are lots of issues where universities are stronger together than they could be alone. And obviously a uniting device in terms of trying to influence policy is helpful.

“There are so many things it would be madness for individual universities to try to tackle. And there are really quite challenging, knotty issues that the sector as a whole needs to get a grip on. Anything from student mental health issues to harassment issues on campuses to how do you look at grade inflation.

How should sector agencies function? There are these sorts of things that no one institution can deal with.”

Fingers in many ministries

As well as the 136 members, UUK works with upwards of a dozen government departments at any one time.

“I would say we spend about a third of our time on DfE and BEIS [Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy]. But we spend two-thirds of our time with other departments: Foreign Office, DfID [Department for International Development], Home Office, Department for Health, Cabinet Office, I was in the Ministry of Defence a few weeks ago. There are so many departments: DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport] on digital issues, the Treasury, of course. So many departments’ policy areas have an influence on universities.

“So we’ll be working across at least 12 departments at any one time and that’s certainly at ministerial level, but also civil servants, political advisors.”

And that’s just UK government. “About a third of our work is internationally focused as well [through Universities UK International]. It’s about promoting UK higher education overseas but it’s also looking at domestic decisions about international issues.

And then we’re also working at the European level as well so quite a lot of our focus has been on partnerships with our European counterparts, working in Brussels, with the Commission and others as well. So our political relations are multi-faceted at different levels, different departments, different issues.”

All of which must be extraordinarily difficult to manage? Jarvis smiles. “Yeah,” he says, “but one thing I love about universities is that they are not just about what the secretary of state for education’s priorities are. Actually the priorities of the home secretary or the president of the European Commission or the secretary of state for international trade or the development priorities of the government or what the Welsh government is doing or what the Scottish government is doing – all those things are hugely important to us.”

What’s really interesting about UUK’s work is the function it performs in greasing the cogs between institutional management and top-level policy-making.

“Our role is as a representative body for the UK’s universities, but in doing that we’re working best when we’re a bridge between policy-makers and universities. What I don’t see us doing is just slavishly representing what universities want us to say. It’s not as simple as that. It’s about translation both ways, so it’s about understanding priorities of the universities but then finding a way that is politically possible to deliver those. We deliberately position ourselves not at the heart of the sector but actually in-between the sector and government, if that makes sense?”

It does, but it also sounds as though it could create fraught relationships with members.

“Not usually because they understand we’re most effective if we are trying to find a way to solve things rather than just being a mouthpiece.
“We have to act as a bridge and we have to find routes that are possible to solve things. That doesn’t mean we don’t stand our ground and argue things and raise concerns – we do – but if we do that and just do it and it has no impact then what’s the point of doing it?”

Given the complexity and multitude of issues at hand, it’s surprising that Jarvis doesn’t think his current role has been his biggest challenge. That award goes to running the University of Kent Students’ Union. Elected in his second year while studying for a degree in politics, he took a one-year sabbatical to undertake the job.

“I loved university, loved it academically, loved it socially, loved the people, the cultural experiences, meeting lots of people from different places. It opened up my brain, I think, and I thrived at university in terms of enjoyment. I developed that co-love for politics and education. I loved the culture and ethos of universities, the people who were thinking about wonderful, big things, the debate, the discussion, the arguments, all that kind of stuff. I learned more in that one year running the students’ union than I have done in any year since.

“There is no job I have done that is more of a challenge because I was 20 years old and I was running an organisation with a £5m turnover or something. It was just madness really. And, of course, representing students, and they all have different opinions. And negotiating with the university vice-chancellor and local council, and running big commercial services. It was kind of a crazy year, but great fun. That gave me a passion for leadership, a passion for politics and certainly education.”

If it was a great primer for what was to come, Jarvis built on it with a stint in London working in policy communications consultancy, becoming head of the education team, before moving to a campaigning organisation called Enterprise Insight, where he ran Enterprise Week (“No one knows it when you say it but it was the second highest participation campaign in the UK after Children in Need.”).

He would follow that with a job as director of communications for the 1994 Group, then a similar role at the University of Birmingham where there was “quite a lot of work on politics and political affairs for the leadership of the university, and also thinking about the outside world and how that affected the university.

“That’s the sort of thread through my career. I’ve always done something which is not pure comms, not pure policy, not pure external relations – a bit of a mix of all of it really.”
Jarvis picked up the director of external relations job at UUK in 2013. He was deputy chief executive to Nicola Dandridge (who now runs the OfS), then became chief executive in August 2017.

A spin in the time machine

If he could go back in time and change something – anything – what would that be?

For the second time in our chat, he stops and looks towards the window where the city bustle continues unabated. Following a long pause, he returns to the room.
“I’m going to cheat and have two. The more recent one is that I wish we could have not voted to leave the European Union with all the problems, and [he winces] all the work it’s prevented. And particularly the message it sends out to the world.

“But the more practical one – that was a policy decision rather than an electoral decision – is immigration policy. Why have we over the past nine years had consecutive governments that have tightened immigration policies, restricted the  flow of international students, but also sent out a message to the world that we’re not welcoming? We’re stronger when we’re working with our international partners, we attract the best brains when we allow people who could benefit from a UK education to come here.”

If it seems unlikely such things will be reversed in the current political climate, it’s comforting to know that in a noisy corner of London, the crooked stream of negotiations continues in a bid to see universities flourish.

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