Our universities are, on most measures, among our most important national assets - training the UK’s workforce and developing the curiosity and creativity needed to adapt to a changing world. Without universities, there would be no doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, engineers, scientists, or creative industry professionals.
We carry out genuinely world-leading research that translates into the innovation vital both for the UK’s economy and for our nation to tackle the huge challenges we face in the coming decades. Our universities generate over £20 billion in invisible exports and are anchor institutions in many of our towns and cities – just imagine Birmingham, Newcastle, or Liverpool without higher education institutions.
Seventeen of the world’s top 100 universities, including the University of Birmingham, are British and our Higher Education is envied and emulated around the globe. As international facilitators of change, we can help the UK Government and its global partners find solutions to international challenges such as climate change and antimicrobial resistance.
... more money isn’t necessarily the answer to the challenges that universities are facing, but rather government support of the sector, both at home and abroad, together with the right legislative and funding framework that allows us to focus on the task at hand; providing for the public good.Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor & Principal – University of Birmingham
However, if our universities are to help the Government to tackle these challenges, there are some things we need from them to help us to help the country. For this year’s party conference season, the University of Birmingham has partnered with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) along with the Universities of Sussex and Sheffield Hallam.
Ahead of the next UK general election, expected to take place in 2024, HEPI asked me and two fellow Vice-Chancellors, representing very different types of university, to write essays on what we would like to see in the party manifestos relating to HE and research policy. This collection of three essays makes for very interesting reading.
In my contribution, I argue that more money isn’t necessarily the answer to the challenges that universities are facing, but rather government support of the sector, both at home and abroad, together with the right legislative and funding framework that allows us to focus on the task at hand; providing for the public good.
Specifically, I call on the next government to:
Foster a conducive environment for universities to thrive, so they can help to tackle the pressing challenges facing the country
Growth and productivity are low; public services need improvement; we have a chronic shortage of medical professionals; rapid climate change is challenging our infrastructure; and more. Universities are integral to finding the solution to almost every major issue that must be addressed, and we need to be backed to do so.
Prioritise quality-related funding to allow universities to pursue high-risk high-reward discovery research
Grant funding provided for the long-term, based on a university’s research track record, allows universities to develop ground-breaking research that grows to become world-changing innovation. When the temptation to pinch a little from this funding inevitably arises, please don’t.
Adopt a long term, sustainable and predictable funding model for higher education to protect universities’ future
The current funding system is in an unhealthy state with the average UK student leaving university with among the highest levels of debt of any students in the world, whilst many universities now only break-even as the real-world value of student fees decreases. I recommend, therefore, that a cross-party independent commission be established to interrogate – honestly – the choices the nation faces.
Rebalance the current framework so that UK research and development (R&D) remains internationally competitive
World-class R&D takes place in a global context but must be matched by appropriate levels of funding. Other countries are increasing their R&D investment further - our universities make the most of what they have, but the incoming government must make sure we are properly funded.
Promote and support UK universities on the world stage to maintain the UK’s attractiveness to international students
The Government must create a positive environment for us to compete globally. Headlines about universities here in the UK, are read in Mumbai and Shanghai. Talk of ‘low value’ degree courses or inaccurate claims that international students ‘take places away’ from domestic students create the sense of an unwelcoming environment for overseas students and academics.
Set the broad policy parameters, then leave universities to get on with what they do best
There are many areas where bureaucracy is essential, but the overall burden is too high. We must strive to reduce bureaucracy in education, as we have in research, which would help to cut costs while allowing greater focus on essential areas.
Universities can help themselves by recognising that they should not always look to government to fix their problems and that more money is not necessarily the best answer to the issues they face. What we do need from government, however, is their unwavering support and favourable conditions in which to succeed. Give us these, and we will do the rest.