Universities should be cautious before assuming the public supports an extensive bailout of the sector, after a new survey for University Alliance suggests only 17% of the British public thinks the government should spend more of taxpayers’ money on higher education institutions.
The survey of 1000 UK adults was carried out between 13-15 May by Public First and the results have been weighted to reflect the respondents’ socio-economic status, region, age, sex and level of formal education.
The polling company asked members of the public about their attitudes towards universities, publicly funded higher education, research, the civic agenda, different professions and degrees.
Public First asked participants to pick five priorities for the government following the coronavirus pandemic from a list of 13 options, which included improving the NHS, reducing unemployment, improving public transport and delivering Brexit.
Expanding universities was statistically the least supported of all the 13 statements put to the participants, who favoured supporting the NHS, tackling unemployment and strengthening the welfare system.
Boosting university participation was least popular among the over 55s and most popular for young adults aged 18 to 24 – in total. Only 1% strongly believed the sector should expand post-Covid-19 and 93% did not list it in their top five priorities for the government.
According to the survey, public support for increasing higher education funding is tepid.
Respondents were asked to pick areas they thought should receive higher public funding from a list of 15 suggestions. By far the most supported option was the NHS (83%) followed by social care (54%) and the environment (39%).
Although 25% of those polled thought universities will be very important to supporting the UK economy and society recover after Covid-19, only 17% thought universities should get more public money – less than the number who thought nurseries and childminders should get a cash boost.
The public were divided on what activities universities should prioritise. According to the survey, an overwhelming majority of the public thinks universities should lead the nation’s research output (74%), but the most do not think universities should lead on supporting small and medium sized businesses (47%) or adult training and skills (47%).
The poll suggests universities should prioritise training profession-led degrees – for example teachers, lawyers and doctors – above all other subjects. More than six in 10 (62%) said it was “very important” that universities teach applied subjects, whereas social sciences (24%), languages (13%) and the arts (12%) were deemed less vital.
These attitudes were also reflected in the respondents’ views on the types of careers a university education was needed for. The majority thought lawyers (85%), teachers (72%) and engineers (65%) should need a degree, but did not think nurses (48%), paramedics (51%) or social workers (55%) should be graduate-level professions.