Dr Diana Beech is CEO of London Higher, the largest regional representative body for higher education in England. She was previously Policy Adviser to three Universities Ministers and is Vice-Chair of the Board of Governors at the University of Worcester. She joins fellow panelists, Alistair Burt, Pro-Chancellor, Lancaster University and James Parnell President and Vice-Chancellor, University of the Arts London at the Governance Conference 23 November.
It is often said that a day is a long time in politics. Yet, the past twelve months in Westminster have felt as if someone has had their finger stuck on the ‘fast forward’ button. We’ve lived through a whirlwind of three Prime Ministers, the creation of brand new government departments including one for Science, Innovation and Technology, and a revolving door of junior ministers and responsibilities. Since 1 July 2022, the Department of Education alone has seen five different Education Secretaries (one of whom lasted only three days) and the gradual dissolution of the role of a dedicated minister for universities.
It is no surprise, then, that the higher education sector – like many others – is looking for a reset, and the upcoming General Election provides the perfect opportunity to set out for politicians from all parties what is needed to ensure future stability and success.
Achieving cut-through for higher education is not, however, going to be easy. Any future government is ultimately going to secure a mandate to tackle some of the biggest societal challenges of our time, including fixing record NHS waiting lists, solving the growing social care crisis, and controlling illegal immigration – and all of this against a backdrop of sky-high government borrowing and the rising cost of living.
The risk hanging over our sector as we head into the next General Election is clear: without the support and advocacy from our allies, universities could easily pale in significance against the long list of other priorities facing any future government. So, the challenge for our sector is ensuring that higher education is seen as a solution to these other problems, and not just an end in itself.
That’s why we need to be ensuring now that whoever gets the keys to No. 10 next year understands, first and foremost, the importance of putting our universities and colleges on a stable financial footing early in the next parliament to give our nation the best chance of filling skills shortages, boosting innovation and expanding opportunities. Successive years of domestic fee freezes and rising inflation have already eroded the real terms value of university funding in England. Without a change to the funding formula anytime soon, higher education institutions across the country will struggle to deliver the breadth and depth of provision our society and economy need.
Second, any changes to domestic funding must also be supported by a welcoming, yet robust immigration system: one which incentivises global talent to come to the UK to study and offers more advantages than our competitors, yet protects against our sector being used as a backdoor entry route into the country. The recent restrictions on dependants’ visas for postgraduate Master’s students and rising non-completion rates among international entrants benefit no-one. That’s why any future government would do well to work with our sector to devise an immigration offer that attracts the widest pool of international students to our universities and colleges, while also closing the loopholes that can be exploited by unscrupulous individuals and agencies.
Third and finally, we need any future government to recognise our higher education institutions as the assets that they are and put an end to the ‘university bashing’ that has characterised the past few years. There are so many countries in the world that would love to have so many globally renowned universities in their midst – such as those in Oxford, Cambridge and in London – and it is unfathomable why our current ministers publicly do these institutions down, instead of holding them up as magnets for investment and talent, or simply as a sign of British excellence and prestige.
Given the public scepticism of higher education that remains, we cannot expect to get to the stage where the next government will be openly lauding our universities. But it will be enough if we can bring an end to the unwarranted attacks on a sector that underpins so many other parts of our society – be it training the key workers that power our public services, the entrepreneurs that boost our business growth, or the scientists and researchers that drive discoveries and inventions.
Going to university may not be for everyone, but everyone certainly benefits from the great work that our universities do. The best thing that any future government can do, then, is to recognise this and focus on protecting our higher education institutions as building blocks for national prosperity and success.
You can follow Diana on Twitter @dianajbeech.
Join us at our Governance Conference 2023: Governance Culture: Navigating policy, politics and people’, 23 November 2023, De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms in London.
This year, Advance HE is celebrating 20 years leading and supporting effective governance in HE. Culture is the key factor that underpins effectiveness no matter what the operating context throws at higher education providers. With that in mind, the 2023 conference will look at board culture through the lens of navigating policy, politics and people. We will reflect on what the past 20 years has sharpened our focus on, as well as look ahead to the prospect of further governmental and regulatory change in order to stimulate thinking on how healthy board culture can thrive to benefit all.