THE BLOG

What's in a Name? Perhaps the Future of Higher Education

27/01/2016 16:38 GMT | Updated 27/01/2017 10:12 GMT

The UK is fortunate to have a diverse and high quality higher education offer. There are over 100 universities in the UK with student satisfaction at an average of 86% and students in employment and further study generally in excess of 90% within six months of graduating. In the 2014 research assessment exercise, universities were able to demonstrate examples of research deemed to be internationally excellent across the full range of institutions involved with clear evidence of the benefit that research provides to society.

It is important to realise that whilst the subject coverage and balance of teaching and research may vary across universities, there is much that is common across institutions that have been awarded university title. In addition to the twin pillars of research and teaching, universities are engaged in pockets of diverse and bespoke work which has the cumulative effect of moving the sector as a whole far beyond what people typically know or expect from higher education.

In 2010 we saw that the British public knew surprisingly little about higher education and in particular its wider impact on public life and unfortunately five years on, and with an increasing emphasis on the market, it is perhaps no surprise that the value of universities is more than ever assessed in terms of pounds and pence - whether in terms of the cost of a university degree, the graduate premium arising from a higher education qualification or the short term costs of higher education to the Treasury. This focus has perhaps been compounded by the fact that the university title is increasingly focused on the delivery of taught courses. Indeed this limited view of a university is at the heart of the government's HE Green Paper proposals to further deregulate the market by easing the criteria by which university title can be obtained and linking university title solely with teaching, independent of size, breadth or depth of activity.

This reductionist approach to university title sits alongside proposals to produce two different approaches to the measurement of teaching and research backed by two entirely different funding and reward systems. This suggests that ministers see teaching and research as two separate and separable components of what a university does. Proposals that in future activity will be overseen by two bodies - an Office for Students and Research UK - could further embed this view if implementation is not carefully considered. Such an approach risks undermining the value of the university title, at least in England, and further eroding political and public perceptions of the wider contribution that universities make to society.

Perhaps ironically it also risks destroying the legacy of the Conservative Government's 1992 FE and HE Act. This challenged elitism by recognising the role of higher education institutions of long-standing, providing them with the opportunity to apply for university title on the same basis and criteria applied to 'older' universities.

The argument that the 92 Act opened up the market and that objections to extending the latter in 2016 are no more than sour grapes, are misplaced. Far from standards being lowered, modern universities applied for and were awarded university title on exactly the same basis as that applied to their older peers.

There are benefits to supporting further growth in the number of higher education providers to meet different needs but relaxing the control on the university title to allow this would do a real disservice to the international reputation of the UK and to the university title itself which has been highly valued and hard won. It will also signal the end of any recognition that universities and their students make a wider contribution to the communities in which they live and work and to society more generally.

I lead a UK University with students and staff who contribute locally, nationally and internationally in ways which bring mutual benefits to local communities and to the national and global interests of the UK. The achievements of the staff and students that make up the university is something of which I remain very proud. As the sector continues to evolve we need to look forward but in doing so we need to ensure much greater understanding of the value universities bring. We must ensure that any new providers achieving this status are able to evidence their ability to commit to teaching, research and scholarship in a sustainable way. But I would also argue they must commit to serving the public good and be tested against this promise if we are to uphold the tradition of what it means to be a university in the UK.