The report looks at the findings of a survey into public attitudes towards universities and the value of university education, the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, and views on freedom of speech. It is the second in a series of annual polls and is based on findings from around 2,000 adults who were questioned in August 2022 by Public First. Research for the survey was carried out online, and results weighted to be representative by interlocked age and gender, region and social grade. There was a roughly even split between socio-economic and age groups, and around 61 per cent of respondents had not attended university. Researchers also segmented responders into 7 groups based on their attitudes to universities: “university optimists” (6 per cent), “university pessimists” (11 per cent), “salary improvers” (16 per cent), “elite promoters” (10 per cent), “research supporters” (10 per cent), “career delayers” (16 per cent), and “broadly uninterested” (30 per cent).
- Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of respondents support the re-introduction of maintenance grants for the poorest students (p8, p37)
- 71 per cent believe the cost-of-living crisis will deter people from going to university over the next two years – but only 26 per cent think that fewer people should be going to university (p7, p25, p34)
- 57 per cent agree the Government should provide additional support to students to help them with the cost of living. However, respondents also felt other groups, such as people on the minimum wage, pensioners, and families with young children, were a higher priority than students for receiving more financial support (p7, p34)
- 63 per cent believe that students should expect to work part time to cover their living costs while at university (p8)
- Three quarters of respondents agree that a university degree is an impressive achievement. 77 per cent agree that universities are important to research and innovation and 57 per cent think they are important to the UK economy as a whole (p6, p14)
- Support for public investment in higher education is also high, and half of people agree that university research should receive funding from the taxpayer (p6, p17)
- However, over one-fifth of respondents (22 per cent) agree with the statement “a university degree is a waste of time” – and this rises to nearly a third among 18-to-24 year olds (p6, p23). Some 58 per cent agree “a university degree does not prepare students for the real world” (p23)
- Less than a fifth of respondents had visited a university in the existing academic year, and over half of those from the lowest social grades (DE) had never visited a university at all (p7, p21)
- On questions of freedom of speech, over half (57 per cent) felt this is currently under at least some threat, compared with just 16 per cent who said it is under no threat (p7, p29).
Implications for governance:
Most governors would consider their universities to be well thought of institutions with an anchor role locally and regionally, while being part of a wider sector that makes a vital contribution to the UK economy.
The HEPI/UPP Foundation report on public perceptions of the value of the higher education reflects this view overall, showing a high level of support for universities among voters in England (interestingly, higher levels of support than voters in the United States give to their institutions). Despite government attempts to persuade more young people away from three year degrees and towards vocational courses at further education colleges, only a minority of those polled believe that fewer people should be going to university.
However, there are some areas where public perceptions are either moving in the wrong direction for the sector or continue to be problematic. This matters in so far as government policy, including regulation of HE, is influenced by public opinion or by the headlines that might emanate from a “university sceptic” standpoint.
Fewer people think universities are important to the UK economy than last year (dropping from 64 per cent to 57 per cent) and one in five people ‘a university degree is a waste of time’. Most of those polled do not think universities prepare students for the “real world”.
While many inside academia believe the freedom of speech row and subsequent legislation is overblown, nearly 60 per cent of the public say that freedom of speech at English universities is under threat.
There is much sympathy among the public for hard-up students and a significant majority want to see a return of maintenance grants for the poorest students. Many respondents also thought the government should provide additional support to students to help them with the cost of living.
However only 10 per cent of respondents put students among the top three groups they would prioritise for support, behind workers on minimum wage, pensioners and families with young children.
If universities and students’ unions want to understand why the government hasn’t provided additional support, the report says they need look no further than these findings. It also suggests that this low prioritisation of students could explains why successive Westminster governments have opted to shift the costs of higher education onto the main beneficiaries – graduates – and away from taxpayers.
Given the report findings, governing boards may want to think about how, and the extent to which, their university engages with “the outside world”, and how it communicates the value it adds to the economy and the community. Governors, arguably, have an important role to play in this: external members not only bring their expertise into universities but are ambassadors at large for their institutions.
Nick Hillman, the HEPI director goes further and says that the polling shows there will need to be “a sustained advocacy job done either side of the next general election if more people are to understand the true value of higher education”. He describes as “dispiriting” the findings on the lack of pubic engagement with universities – with only a small proportion visiting campuses.
According to the report, universities need to do more to welcome people on site and to make their activities more visible. Governors may want to consider this point as part of a wider scrutiny of their own institution’s civic and public engagement strategy, as well as contributions it makes at a sector level towards raising awareness of the value of HE.
“Given the importance higher education institutions play in England’s national and civic life and their extensive work with businesses, charities and other educational institutions, it is clear universities need to do more to welcome people on to campus and also to make their existing support for museums, theatres, schools, libraries and other civic organisations, not to mention employers and the healthcare sector, much more visible,” the report says.
This work is important if the views of respondents labelled as “university pessimists”, are to be addressed. The hardening of their views should be taken as an “early warning sign” and a signal for action that the sector needs to continue - and strengthen - its public facing communications, according to the report.
“Politicians pay attention to the public’s views on the role and value of the higher education system,” it says. “It is not enough to be able to demonstrate in data that your university is having an economic or social impact if there is no corresponding belief amongst the general public that such an impact exists.”
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