Reorientate training and research to local priorities, Wolf tells universities

The influential Conservative party insider Rachel Wolf told an audience at the Tory party conference that ministers must incentivise universities to evolve

Universities can level up the regions of the UK by “reorientating” training and research towards the needs of local economies, according to the author of the Conservative party 2019 manifesto.

Rachel Wolf – the influential Tory thinker and founding partner of the political consultancy group Public First – also said ministers must engineer change “on the demand side” to incentivise universities to promote more sub-degree, technical and vocational courses.

Wolf addressed an audience at the Conservative party conference on the 4 October during a session hosted by the Education Policy Institute and Sheffield Hallam University (SHU). She was joined on the panel by Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students (NUS) and Prof Sir Chris Husbands, SHU vice-chancellor.

Wolf sketched out her vision of levelling-up “as about restoring civic pride and allowing people to feel there is opportunity in the place they live”. Polling conducted by Public First showed that people in places “that need levelling-up” place significant value in local skills and training: Wolf challenged universities “to really be first movers in showing how this can be delivered”. Public First polling also suggests low public support for additional HE funding.

She told the audience that “mid-level skills” and technical training were “very important” to these communities and argued universities could be the “vanguard” in upskilling with “sub-degree [qualifications]…evening training for workers and lifelong learning”.

Wolf predicted that higher education would respond to incentivisation if new government policies affected university finances. Incentivising “on the demand side” would naturally lead universities to explore options outside of the model that has become dominant since the 2011 student finance reforms: recruiting 18-year-olds to three-year undergraduate degrees. Between 2011/12 and 2017/18, the number of adults in England starting a part-time undergraduate course within the UK reduced by 60%. A report warned “extinction beckons” for part-time adult students in many universities unless a radical policy shake-up comes soon.

Wolf said more was to be done to align research and the needs of local communities and economies. Academics should “[work] deeply with the local leadership and [the] local area…to improve the economics of their place”, rather than “publishing research on obscure parts of the globe and how to improve their productivity”, Wolf argued. To do so, “would be a signal that we were reorienting not only skills training but R&D towards what is most likely to make the biggest long-term difference to these areas,” she added.

On research, Wolf contended that ministers should do more to direct university research to fulfil government policies like net-zero, for example.

Despite UK universities being home to many internationally leading climate scientists, Westminster did too little to encourage them to “develop really tangible technological innovations” that could help achieve national priorities, she explained.

MillionPlus published a report calling on government to ‘level up’ research funding for universities in deprived places. Many MillionPlus universities are in towns and small cities, often with higher-than-average levels of deprivation, like Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Luton, Wolverhampton and Preston.

Prof Graham Baldwin, vice-chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan),  gave a speech at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference calling for more funding and support for modern universities. “When we focus on levelling up and doing as much as we can for as many as we can, we need to ensure we keep universities within that focus,” said Baldwin.

In June 2021, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change called for an additional 46 universities to be built to level up deprived, middle-sized towns outside of economically vibrant conurbations. The report recommended that the new universities “should have a particular focus on applied as well as technical skills and core competencies for the 21st century”. The former universities and science minister David Willetts has similarly called for an expansion of HE “in towns from Blackpool to Chatham” to bring HE opportunities to Tory-held red wall seats.

Read more: Skidmore’s new independent commission calls for national careers service

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