Higher education at a crossroads

Hannah Oakman discovers 10 key takeaways from this year’s University Alliance Summit at Coventry University

Leading the way in our cities and regions is the mantra of the University Alliance and a key theme of the 2016 Summit, held at Coventry University, the 2016 Modern University of the Year (as it was both in 2014 and 2015 too).

This year’s event was a great mix of policy debate, discussion around potential new collaborations and much ‘guestimating’ as to where the higher education sector is really headed. Held on the day when the University Alliance launched its latest report in the Regional Leadership series – Creating Innovative Regions ­– there was much to digest at this high-level event.

After an enthusiastic welcome from Coventry’s Vice-Chancellor Professor John Latham, the sessions soon unfolded as we sat and listened in the plush surroundings of the main lecture space within the university’s architecturally-stunning Engineering and Computing building.

So what were the key points from the day? Here’s a run down (in no particular order) of my top ten takeaways… 

1. UK productivity must rise: Germany’s productivity is 28% higher than the UK’s, France 19% above. We need to export to be competitive so we must build a high wage, high skill economy – and universities play a crucial role in this.

2. A growing presence: according to Chief Executive Maddalaine Ansell, University Alliance member universities now educate 25% of the nation’s undergraduates, including 25% of nurses and a quarter of all engineers.

3. Flexible and part time learning vital to the sector: people no longer have a ‘job for life’ and want different things from their careers along the way. They must be helped to re-skill and up-skill throughout their lives.

4. The HEI as employer: we need to take a closer look at skills needed within HE’s own workforce. For example would apprenticeship training work for internal staff?

5. The student interest: Sorana Vieru, HE Vice-President at the National Union of Students questioned the lack of student voice in the latest HE White Paper – student’s are discontented with the commoditisation of higher education.

6. Boosting access and social mobility: it’s been proven that the early years of a child’s life are crucial in affecting social mobility and universities could have more involvement with early-years child care providers.  

7. Devolution as a bonus: the current UK government is handing unprecedented powers to cities and regions – an opportunity for the UK’s universities to build stronger sector and commercial partnerships.   

8. Universities without research: with new degree awarding power announced in the HE White Paper, we could end up with universities who do not carry out any research at all – which many consider the very expertise which underpins the university degree.

9. Calling all employers: some, including Professor Andy Westwood, believe that ‘employer-based’ HE is a real weakness in the UK system. How do we develop people who are already in work? And will the commercial sector ever embrace it or, more to the point, pay for it?

10: The success of scrutiny? Will the proposals laid out in the new TEF really work and deliver the improvements in teaching which are perhaps intended? Will the student input be sufficient from the National Student Survey to produce a complete picture at any rate..?

Hannah Oakman is Managing Editor of University Business magazine.

For more about the University Alliance and its work with the HE sector visit www.unialliance.ac.uk

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