Government must prioritise place-based funding, says MillionPlus chair

Universities can support the government’s levelling-up agenda and add ‘depth and relevance’ to vocational and technical courses, Prof Rama Thirunamachandran says

Modern universities serve ‘left-behind’ communities and can underpin the government’s levelling-up agenda, the chair of MillionPlus will tell the Conservative party conference this weekend.

“Modern universities serve communities across the UK that are seen as having been ‘left-behind’,” Prof Rama Thirunamachandran, chair of MillionPlus, is expected to tell a fringe event at the Conservative party conference this Sunday. He will add that modern universities “act as anchors in their communities, providing links and co-ordination with businesses in their areas, ‘real-world’ research projects to boost the local economy, and the education and training of those that live there”.

Prof Thirunamachandran, who is also vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), is set to address an online event held in partnership with the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) and hosted by ConservativeHome on Sunday 4 October.

He will use his speech to draw attention to the teaching and research activities of MillionPlus member universities and identify ways these 23 post-‘92 high education providers (HEPs) can support the government’s levelling up agenda.

He will call for a ‘place-based’ approach to university funding: “We believe that the government needs to build on what it has so positively already set out, ensuring that ‘levelling-up’ and ‘place’ don’t become terms that we reflect upon in five years as opportunities missed.

“They need to be tangibly supported by government, and modern universities are incredibly well-placed to help them succeed in this regard.”

He will be flanked at the online event by universities minister Michelle Donelan and Hepi director Nick Hillman.

‘Old, centralised model’ of funding has led to regional disparities

Calling for reform to university research funding, Prof Thirunamachandran will argue that funds are presently focused on the activities of a small number of institutions.

“Continuing the old, centralised model of hyper-concentration of both resources and focus will inevitably lead to the same old results: it will leave another generation of people in some parts of the country without the attention and opportunities they deserve. Modern universities are not part of that old model. We offer something different,” the CCCU vice-chancellor will say.

Government must prioritise place-based funding and support modern universities, says MillionPlus
The MillionPlus chair will describe modern universities as the “powerhouse” of the public sector, because of the number of teachers and NHS workers they train every year. (Image via University of Sunderland)

The MillionPlus chair will highlight universities like Bolton and London Southbank that “now have FE colleges and academies as an integral part of their university groups”, which help to provide clear routes for students “from vocational or academic qualifications”.

He will say that his organisation’s members educate more than a million students every year, many of whom are commuting to study, learning while they earn or employed on degree apprenticeships.

Commenting on the prime minister’s ambition to increase the number of adults in England with higher technical qualifications, the MillionPlus chair will say: “With unemployment rising the need to boost work-focused and technical education has rarely been so pressing.

“Modern universities specialise in these types of courses, offering an enormous variety of work-relevant courses as well as higher technical qualifications that upskill and reskill our current and future workforce.

“The vast expertise present within higher education adds to the depth and relevance of these courses, ensuring that the most up to date and relevant courses are on offer, with the right facilities and cutting-edge industry experience available to make study relevant to the workplace, and the multiple careers that someone in their teens will likely have over their working lives.”

Technical qualifications should be “on par” with academic ones, the MillionPlus chair believes

Modern universities lead the sector on technical qualifications, says MillionPlus

Prof Thirunamachandran believes the government is “rightly committed” to putting technical and vocational qualifications “on par” with academic courses and will praise the decision to offer loan support for technical and modular programs. The CCCU vice-chancellor will urge the prime minister to go further on student finance: “Switching from maintenance loans to grants would really make a difference to people’s ability to keep up with the overall costs of study, not just paying the fees.”

Prof Thirunamachandran will quote figures that suggest that modern universities educate 71% of UK nurses, 63% of those studying allied health programmes and 58% of those studying teacher education. MillionPlus members are “the powerhouses of the UK’s public services”, he will say; adding that these modern universities have “scope to expand quickly” their training of health professionals for the NHS.

Drawing attention to the record of MillionPlus members in widening participation, Prof Thirunamachandran will say “[MillionPlus universities] support students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities much more than others. One modern university in London educates 14 times more black students than the similarly sized older university where I gained my degree many moons ago.” Prof Thirunamachandran studied geography and natural sciences at Cambridge University.

Reflecting on recent government announcements on the culture and reputation of HE in England, Prof Thirunamachandran will reassure Conservative ministers and backbenchers that MillionPlus universities “take seriously the topics of free speech, trends in degree classifications, and the workings of university admissions”.

“We have, and we continue to respond to such concerns with a commitment to listen and to act to reassure,” he will add.

Read more: Prime minister announces ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’

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