Time for universities to aim higher

Universities need to recognise that the division between ‘town and gown’ is not confined to Oxbridge, says Adrian McMenamin

The most successful brands are surely those that substitute their name for the commodity – how many of us call a vacuum cleaner a “Hoover” or a ball-point pen a “Biro”?

By this measure the members of the Russell Group ought to be very happy indeed. The name of their trade association (or “mission group” to use the preferred term) has completely captured the public’s sense of what constitutes a “good” university – and the government even judge secondary schools’ success on entrants to their members.

Of course, on almost any measure, its members are in the global top 1% of higher education, but the Group – which is invitation-only and rumoured to be closed to new entrants – does not include St. Andrews, Lancaster, UEA and many others generally regarded as every bit as good as their members. Those on the outside have every right to feel aggrieved each time a minister or a broadcaster declares the Russell Group to be at the pinnacle of British higher education.

If the Group is a marketing triumph, its record as a lobbyist is much less stellar. Despite the enormous economic contribution Britain’s universities make, politicians seem content to give universities short shrift. The last five years have been marked by a running battle with the Home Office over overseas students – a conflict which has done real damage to British universities in many overseas markets – and that will not end should the Conservatives remain in government after May’s general election. Nor has Labour, it seems, been listening: Ed Miliband’s announcement, in early March, that he would cut tuition fees in government showed the opposition travelling in precisely the opposite direction to the Group, who have been pressing for the removal of the cap on fees.

These reverses are hardly the fault of the Russell Group alone: the lack of appreciation of universities’ economic role is widespread and, perhaps ironically, is most acute in those towns where universities are amongst the biggest employers. Local councillors, green campaigners, all manner of NIMBYs and many others – often alumni of the institution they now attack – are quick to blame housing, transport and crime problems on “students” and to oppose university growth.

Often such complaints are amplified by the highly public denunciations of university strategy from academic staff. For university HR directors, academic freedom definitely comes at a price: no other employer would even dream of tolerating the level of public abuse from their staff that comes with this territory.

What gets lost in all this is just how successful our higher education institutions are. They attract income and, just as importantly, talent from all over the world and, we should not forget, by-and-large also educate our own children to a world-beating standard. The degrees that populist commentators love to hate – such as those in media or business studies – often produce the most employable graduates in a world where soft skills are more valued than ever.

How can that economic importance be positively transformed into political heft?

Madness is said to be signified by repeating the same failure-inducing behaviour and yet somehow expecting different results. Maybe it is time universities considered if they are guilty of this: certainly the current approach of one elite group dominating the debate while others scrabble for crumbs from the table has not delivered.

Universities need to be much more assertive about their economic and educational contribution – both individually and collectively. The artificial division of the sector into “good” and “the rest” might have helped a few institutions with recruitment in the short term but has locked-in instability by allowing politicians to play divide-and-rule. At the local level, too, it is perhaps time for a few institutions to play hard-ball: councillors may only start to pay attention when universities start shifting their investment to localities where it is welcomed and not resented.

But universities need to recognise that the division between “town and gown” is not confined to Oxbridge. The changes in the sector over the last decade have been deep and profound and a generation of politicians who, if they went to university, graduated more than a quarter of a century ago, are simply unlikely to have grasped the scale of the transformation. Higher education is no longer a privilege for a few. It is coming close to being the experience of the majority of our school leavers and that massive expansion, a good thing in itself, means universities have to be run like, and adopt the practices of, the multi-million pound businesses they resemble. First of those should be to explain in every forum what they do and why, while the second should be to see every member of staff and student as a potential advocate.

Britain’s universities do a spectacularly good job whether in teaching or in research. What they now need to do is to match that achievement with a modernised approach to communications.

Adrian McMenamin is a Partner at Bell Pottinger.

W: www.bellpottinger.com 

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