Universities can heal nation’s wounds, says new Hepi report

The paper proposes ways in which government and HEIs should work together in a divided, post-Brexit Britain

A new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) has called on the government to help universities become “a force for social good” in a post-Brexit landscape.

Making Universities Matter: How higher education can help to heal a divided Britain (HEPI Report 125), argues that universities must meet the needs of their communities and work to bridge social, economic and regional divides. It states this cannot happen “without a significant reshaping of funding, responsibilities and incentives.”

Partnerships, progression and place

Building on the 2019 Augar review, which it calls a “missed opportunity”, the paper focusses on three key areas:

  • Partnerships: Government and universities are urged to create a more “connected and coherent” approach to post-18 education, with partnerships between further education and higher education, and direct links with schools and employer
  • Progression: the report says that, for too long, government and the HE sector have approached the matter of access and participation “with a hope that issues have either miraculously addressed themselves or that limited resources have yielded magic dividends”. Both must, it says, “experiment with more radical policy initiatives, to ensure that every student can thrive, regardless of background”
  • Place: In a divided, post-Brexit Britain, the report says, “a university’s geographic role needs to be used more effectively as an agent for change, both within the core cities where the majority of higher education institutions are based, as well as the surrounding areas that may have been left-behind in today’s post-industrial, knowledge-based economic focus.”

Policy suggestions

It offers six ambitious policy ideas to fulfil its vision

  • Government should establish a National Skills Council for England, bringing together leaders from colleges, universities, sector bodies and funding agencies with oversight of a new £400 million Future Economies Programme (funded from the government’s £3 billion National Skills Fund) to encourage collaboration and local partnerships to address skills shortages and educational inequality
  • With this funding, universities and colleges should develop comprehensive local skills agreements, outlining how they will work together to address the skills and educational needs of their local area.
  • Given that the level of parental education is a major influence on educational progression, government should abolish first-year tuition fees for any student whose parents have not obtained degrees – this would be know as a ‘First-in-Family Allowance’
  • The success of social mobility initiative the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) – now known as Uni Connect – should be built on with a joint commitment from HEIs and government to ensure tailored educational advice for every potential student
  • The government should earmark £500 million of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund into a Regional Growth and Innovation Fund in order to drive innovation and investment across the country and address the debilitating productivity divide. “This would enable universities… to play a lead role in stimulating new partnerships and projects for their regions with local industries”
  • The sector should sponsor and make active use of a Civic Index to help institutions measure and monitor their engagement activity with their local area

The nation needs all the help it can get to heal its wounds

“The core argument here is that change is needed,” says the report’s conclusion. “The divisions exposed through Brexit are deeply troubling and the nation needs all the help it can get to heal its wounds.”

The report was co-authored by Natalie Day is head of policy and strategy at Sheffield Hallam University, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University Professor Sir Chris Husbands, and Lord Bob Kerslake, chair of the board of governors for Sheffield Hallam University and former head of the civil service.

Natalie Day said: “We hope this report provides Michelle Donelan MP, the new universities minister, with several positive ideas and opportunities for government and the sector to forge common cause in levelling up the UK economy.”

‘Real appetite amongst universities’

Richard Brabner, director of UPP Foundation, has welcomed the new report, and said place-based funding must be linked to the public’s priorities.

“Recent polling for the UPP Foundation found that people living in towns, cities and villages alike care most about issues such as housing, local NHS services and the high street, yet the polling also revealed public priorities are significantly different between regions.

“While Westminster politicians may have good intentions it is incredibly difficult to design national schemes or programmes to level up disparate places, because their needs and challenges are based on the context of their locality.

“Government should utilise the knowledge and capabilities of local institutions like universities to help drive the levelling up agenda. While only 21% of people think their MPs are doing a good job in their local area, civic institutions such as sports clubs, cultural organisations, universities, charities, local business and hospitals are seen to be doing a better job for their communities. These are the organisations, embedded in their local communities, who will be key to revitalising towns and cities. They, unlike government departments in London, are more likely to understand the real needs of their communities.

“With 59 universities pledging to develop a Civic University Agreement there’s real appetite amongst universities to support  ‘left behind’ places in their regions. However, just as decision-making in a remote office in Whitehall is unlikely to deliver, neither will decision-making in local institutions if they do not engage comprehensively in their communities.

“Nationally we found that over a third of people (36%) have never visited their local university rising to 41% of C2DE social economic groups. To grow support with the public, and to ultimately be trusted to help deliver the levelling up agenda, universities and civil society more generally need to demonstrate value to all in society, not just those who typically use them.” 

The University and College Union (UCU) suggested the proposal did not go far enough and called for tuition fees to be scrapped instead.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Tackling barriers to higher education is crucial for social justice and should be high on the government’s agenda, but the current funding system is broken and needs more than piecemeal reform.

“Even with a year of free tuition, under the current system the poorest students would still graduate with over £40,000 of debt, which would still be incredibly off-putting for many. The best way to ensure that everyone who wants to go to university can do so is to scrap fees altogether, and reintroduce maintenance grants so that no student has to face a mountain of debt after graduation.

‘If we want a more collaborative higher education system we also need to move away from a funding model where institutions are encouraged to compete with each other in a race to attract students. The current marketised system only compounds the problems of chronic work overload and precarious employment that are at the heart of the current dispute over pay and conditions.”

Past reports from Hepi:

Extinction beckons for part-time adult learning 

Modern Languages: seven more universities drop degrees

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