Universities UK Conference 2021: the highlights

Northumbria University hosted this year’s – in-person – gathering of vice-chancellors and other key figures in the higher education world

The headliner may have been Gavin Williamson – whose video speech telling universities “to help bring our nation together, instead of driving our nation apart” was so barbed it fell just short of being a drill video – but the real value of this year’s Universities UK conference was elsewhere: at the dinner, and in the plenary sessions and breakout sessions held across the two-day event at the impressive Northumbria University campus in Newcastle.

Among the many highlights was an impassioned dinner speech by Professor Michael Worton chair of Cara (Council for At Risk Academics), who reminded delegates of the thousands of academics currently trying to escape Afghanistan – he thanked those institutions who had already given refuge to some, and signed up as Cara supporters, and repeatedly implored more to do the same.

Following the education secretary’s remotely-delivered broadside, a session with Viki Cooke of insight and strategy consultancy BritainThinks refuted his implication that the general public is suffering from extreme university wokeness. In conversation with Northumbria’s VC Professor Andrew Wathey, Cooke had good news for delegates.

The public mood is “febrile”, she explained, and deep societal divisions have grown deeper. Health and social care is the public’s number one concern. The impact of all this on higher education? Pre-pandemic, public attitudes were dominated by concerns around costs and universities being motivated by commercial goals, although there was also a “high level nascent pride”, she reported. Post-pandemic, the perceived value of degrees is being questioned even more, and there are concerns about whether students are “getting what they paid for”. However: there is now more appreciation of the value of research and science “which people struggled to get their heads round before”, said Cooke, explaining this was partly thanks to those Downing Street briefing appearances by Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam – and a real pride in vaccine. This represents “a real opportunity for universities to engage people in the other big issues of the day”.

As for the so-called culture wars: Cooke said her focus groups showed most people have “no idea what is meant by [the phrase] – 43% can’t name any issues” and think the media is exaggerating the issue. 38% have no idea what being ‘woke’ means. There’s also apparently little public comprehension of, or interest in, the government’s lifelong learning proposals. In short? “Most people spend very little time thinking about the sector…”

Later, a panel comprising Dr Gavan Conlon of London Economics, Nick Hillman of Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), University of London vice-chancellor Professor Wendy Thomson and Maddalaine Ansell of the British Council – chaired by Professor Dame Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool – discussed the economic impact of international students, presenting the findings of a report published earlier this week by UUK and Hepi.

On the subject of international students and the economic benefits they bring, Nick Hillman told the audience “We can’t stand still because it’s such a competitive space” and said Hepi had sent its report to every constituency MP in the country.

The Hepi chief also said it was his first time on main UUK stage despite attending the conference since 2008 – “for a policy wonk, this is the equivalent to playing Wembley”.

Hillman popped up later in a panel with Jonathan Simons, director of education at Public First and Richard Brabner, director of the UPP Foundation, to discuss the public perception of universities, degrees and cultural challenges impacting the sector. The session followed the findings of a joint Hepi, UPP Foundation and Public First report on the public perception of HE.

Simons warned universities to focus attention on those groups identified in the study as sceptical or pessimistic towards universities, as opposed to those that appeared apathetic or disinterested in the sector. Hillman echoed this view, urging universities to articulate their arguments for the ears of their most ardent detractors. Brabner repeated the findings of the poll: that, in regard to decolonisation, the way change is articulated is vitally important. Hillman reminded universities that – in the case of Section 28 – ‘culture wars’ are risky for politicians to pursue and attitudes would likely change.

Breakout sessions on the experiences of Black students, sustainability literacy, the public perception of universities, the long-term impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning, and mental health rounded off a well-attended conference which saw the sector appraise itself with candour and accuracy – and, this year, to everyone’s relief, not entirely via a screen.


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