The public opinion of universities in England is characterised by a “high level of neutrality”, with significant numbers of those questioned generally apathetic about their purpose, prompting two HE experts to recommend universities urgently reset their civic relationship and use more inclusive language.
Polling company Public First asked 2,000 adults in England for their views of the role of universities, the value of degrees and “topical ‘cultural’ issues”, such as decolonisation.
An accompanying report written by Richard Brabner and Nick Hillman, directors of the UPP Foundation and the Higher Education Policy Insitute (Hepi) respectively, warns England risks American-style partisan divides over higher education. A recent study suggests two-thirds of Republican voters are “completely opposed” to the direction of HE.
The survey analysis published today warns universities – principally publicly-financed institutions – to engage more with taxpayers to build support for their existence because, unlike the NHS and schools, higher education is not a universal service and risks becoming marginalised as elitist.
Universities are caught in political battles about economic productivity and identity, Brabner and Hillman observe. “If we are to change the narrative and build a stronger case to government (of any political hue), we need to broaden our sector’s appeal to the people who matter to them – the public,” they wrote.
The pair say universities should find new vocabulary to explain issues that have become cultural divisive – like decolonisation.
Asked if universities should decolonise their curricula “to actively remove material in it which reflects a western dominated view of the world”, 23% of respondents agreed, 31% disagreed and 33% chose ‘neither agree nor disagree’. But asked if university curricula “should allow students to study about people, events, materials and subjects from around the world, and ensure that all groups are represented fairly and discussed in an even-handed way”, 67% agree, 4% disagree, and 22% said neither agree nor disagree. According to Brabner and Hillman, this is evidence of a ‘progressive’ alliance for diversity and academic freedom.
The level of hostility towards decolonising activity in UK higher education shows just how far we have to go to tackle systemic racism – Jo Grady, UCU
An advance release of the report found
that the public backs freedom of speech at universities in most divisive cases – but disagree with those who espouse racist rhetoric, Holocaust denial and jihadism being given platforms at campuses.
Public support for universities varied widely, with young people, graduates and the middle classes in urban areas the most supportive of the sector. Retirees, non-graduates and those in villages, rural areas and towns are the most likely to be indifferent or critical of universities. Self-identified Conservative and Leave voters – particularly older, working-class ones – are statistically more sceptical of the value of HE in its present form than others.
The public appears to broadly agree that universities have a positive effect “on the way things are going in the country”, with 43% in support and only 11% in opposition. Leave voters were, however, 20% less likely to agree with this than the average. There was less convincing support for the view that the university system is moving in the right direction: a third of voters thought it headed in totally the right way, versus a fifth who ‘completely oppose’ its trajectory.
The public largely agrees that it is important to get a degree – but many view this value as attached to the access it provides to a higher salary. It is perhaps, then, no surprise that the majority (54% compared to 24%) believe studying subjects that do not “clearly lead to a specific profession is a waste of time”. The plurality (47%) think students spend most of their time partying.
This economic view of the value of degrees contrasts with the wider public opinion of degrees: 61% of the sample agree that university does not prepare students for the real world, including 56% of graduates. Fifty-four per cent believe society currently values a university education too highly – including 53% of graduates. Perhaps correspondingly, more than a third of the public (36%) think fewer people should go to university – and just 17% want enrolment to expand. The main detraction of university appears to be the cost – with its expense cited most frequently by respondents as a reason not to go (64%).
More positively, every segment of the sample group thought that universities have an economic impact nationally and locally – but those in towns, rural areas and villages appear not to consider universities important to their local area. Innovation and research were seen by far as the most significant contribution universities can make to the UK, cited by 78% of respondents – respondents viewed it as the area in which universities currently succeed in making the greatest national contribution. Jobs (65%) and the local economic contribution (61%) were seen as the second and third most valuable contributions.
People are proud of the global standing that many UK universities hold: 68% of the sample– and the majority of every group – said it was important to know that British universities do well in the global league table.
Last year, a UPP Foundation survey
suggested that university civic engagement should focus on the public’s ‘levelling-up’ priorities, such as town centre regeneration, local jobs and the NHS.
“Universities have been in the eye of the storm in recent years, with many people expressing strong and varied opinions on how they should change behaviour,” said Hillman. There is “so much goodwill towards universities”, but he warned it was vital the sector “use inclusive language [and] do more to explain their contribution to the country and invite more people on to campus”.
“At times, it feels like universities are in the middle of a never-ending culture war, with protagonists from both sides stoking division and polarisation,” said Brabner.
“But as our polling shows, the way we talk about contentious issues, such as decolonisation, can narrow or broaden appeal. This is an important lesson. There are gaps in support for the sector based on voting intention, age and class. If these gaps widen, universities will face a difficult future.”
The points raised by Hillman and Brabner over decolonisation attracted scorn from the University and College Union. Union general secretary Jo Grady said: “The level of hostility towards decolonising activity in UK higher education shows just how far we have to go to tackle systemic racism. Decolonising curricula benefits students from all backgrounds, but this activity is about more than just diversifying the material students are exposed to, and it should not have to be sanitised in order to win support.”
She blamed the government rhetoric as “deeply divisive” and called on the sector to “call it out rather than pandering”.