Interview with Dr Jennifer Barnes, Higher Education Consultant at Saxton Bampfylde.
I view the Higher Education sector as the engine room for industries, creativity and culture in the UK. Our institutions produce some of the most talented teams and individuals in the world, and we need to recognise that across all sectors. For centuries, not decades, individuals hungry for an outstanding education, with its environment of meeting others who will stimulate their abilities, have chosen to be in the United Kingdom for their education.
In a recent FT article about the impact of Brexit on the City, the Chairman of Barclays was quoted as saying, ‘the talent doesn’t exist in the UK for the higher skilled jobs’. I realise this was in response to his concern, shared across Higher Education, that the UK will fall behind in every conceivable way if we appear as a country opposed to foreign integration. But it also struck me that if he was representative of a belief that UK universities are not producing graduates who can compete with those from overseas, he may well be unaware of the formidable abilities and skills, equal to any other part of the world, that the UK sector develops and delivers.
Unless Higher Education is understood as central to human progress, the UK will struggle. To keep that engine room running at full speed, it needs to be recognised as fundamental to ensuring the future of a nation.
C. P. Snow charts a change during WWII in the kinds of interactions between individuals in Government, academia and industry, in his lecture ‘Science and Government’. In doing so, he also demonstrates Higher Education as part of a wider ecosystem, a triangle that exists between Higher Education, government and industry/cultural institutions. Each has a different purpose; the success of each is defined by the quality of their relationship with one another.
Yet policies often address only one of the areas, either a ‘business’ strategy, or an ‘education’ strategy. Yes, financial support is needed, but for industries and higher education they both demand, rightly, that whatever is put in place increases knowledge, productivity and innovation, and that the success of these can be measured differently in each sector.
It is impossible to find any great area of research in UK which isn’t being driven by Higher Education: Energy, global health, precision medicine, advanced materials, smart cities, and all the work around ageing and big data are key examples. Often overlooked is the importance of the Creative Industries, which demonstrate the interdependence of sciences, humanities and the performing arts. They lead in embedding new design and technology, in all areas of performance, and far from making the performer obsolete, redefines the relationship between humans and technology. This directly translates into economic benefit and international collaboration.
An interesting area gathering increased attention is wellbeing, and what a society needs to do to bring this to the forefront and support it. There is a lot of work being undertaken right across the UK, at what makes a well-balanced human being. This underscores the importance of many disciplines that have been overlooked in an economic assessment of the value of Higher Education. There are signs that the Higher Education sector will drive this work.
Across the international market, the terms ‘private’ and ‘public’ are used in different ways, not only from country to country, but also within the same sector in the same country. This is also true for higher education.
Our universities have many successful examples of Public-Private Partnerships. I have no issue with that and indeed welcome the ingenuity to diversify revenue to support the future of universities. Rather than worry about ‘private’ providers, I am concerned about ‘For Profit’ providers, who answer to shareholders. A quick look at the way this was exploited in the US, which in turn tarnished the entire sector, is one I hope we can avoid.
In contrast, in November the Dyson Institute of Technology was announced, initially in partnership with Warwick University. The UK has some exemplary small and specialist institutions which train a small number of outstanding students with an intensive teaching regime. In that context, I welcome institutions that are created to produce outstanding practitioners. However, the fact remains that the UK is the only G7 country which invests less in HE R&D as a percentage of GDP than it did 30 years ago. In his introduction to the recent report, ‘Building on Success and Learning from Experience’, (July 2016), Lord Stern reiterates ’Whilst the UK spends less as a proportion of GDP on research and development than some of its counterparts, the productivity of that investment is very high. Yet this begs the question, particularly with uncertainty surrounding the future of EU funding, what the United Kingdom could achieve if it was funded to the extent of other G7 nations.
Higher Education is an extraordinarily resilient sector. Some universities have been running for 50-60 years, others for 700 years. We are used to tough times and collectively the universities will find ways to come through in challenging times.
To me, the Bill approaches the sector with a very specific interpretation of problems in Higher Education. For example, the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework poses a valid issue: how to ensure students are receiving the amount and quality of teaching they deserve. Yet with no universal standard of what that means, and, without taking into account the existing commitment to teaching in many parts of the sector, this may give the impression of a significant, widespread problem in the UK Higher Education sector. I would regret anything that demoralises this group of individuals working in universities today. However, if it turns out that the measurements yet–to-be-identified, introduced through the Teaching Excellence Framework, intrinsically benefit students, there is no university that would not support this outcome.
In my experience, leaders in HE are driven more by the development of human capital, than by the delivery of profits and margin.
There is no Vice-Chancellor I know that does not understand the university is a complex business. They do not exist as an island, but have teams around them, and seek individuals who bring specific skills and experience to parts of the organisation. They work closely with the Chair of Council and members of the Council.
However, it’s important to recognise that leading a Higher Education institution is not the same as running a large corporation. A Vice-Chancellor relies on the fact that many individuals in the university are more of an expert than he or she in their own subject. This works as a useful measure to remind anyone doing this difficult role that there are always different views and approaches, and that no one can know it all. The premise of developing humans, both in body and mind, is important to the academic community, so decision-making needs to view risk not as a danger, but something to be evaluated against ‘what happens if we don’t do this’, and then set this analysis in the context of limited budgets.
This doesn’t mean someone from a commercial background can’t take on the role of Vice-Chancellor, but it would be helpful for that individual to demonstrate an understanding of the complexity and different drivers to that of a for-profit entity. I am confident, that a further cohort of individuals will emerge to address the changing needs of the sector. I think leadership is secure, but being a leader is certainly a different challenge than it might have been 30 years ago.
Despite my tendency towards optimism, I was sobered by predictions in a recent report from Oliver Wyman Consultants* commissioned for TheCityUK. The report states that if we follow a path of ‘hard Brexit’ or ‘low access’ to the single market we face a potential loss of 75,000 jobs; £38billion in lost revenues; and £10 billion in lost taxes.
That would be very difficult for any country to weather. And I would wish to hear more, as the Brexit terms become more clear and the Higher Education Bill is enacted, as to how this Bill and this negotiation will increase employment opportunities for our graduates? Far from the UK not producing enough highly-skilled UK graduates, the reality is we produce graduates of outstanding abilities ready to join the UK economy. This is not just a business issue, it’s a graduate issue.
My colleagues in HE institutions have formed Brexit working parties, and already are considering the different elements and scenarios – a complicated process but one that is being tackled directly. Integrity and intelligence will lead this forward, and collaborating with each other, with government, the treasury, BEIS and industry will be essential. A sector as old as ours is ready to prevail.
Brexit will challenge Higher Education. Certain institutions will see opportunities. For example, those with overseas campuses can pursue certain strategies that others will not.
However, I feel great personal sadness that the relationships that have been built up with European colleagues over the years will change. During my time as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, negotiations with India, the US and China were all premised on their interest in access to not only Cambridge research, but the European market.
Ultimately the role of a university is to be valued by its community, regionally and nationally. If you travel to areas in a country or region where there are no universities, confidence, hope and purpose are cauterised. Yet going back to what I said earlier, that dynamic of an independent entity, founded not on profit, but human progress, that concept is essential to communicate. The university of tomorrow will not thrive if it’s seen as a closed entity addressing its customers’ needs yet separate from its community. I think we will see, with the LEPs, City Deals and devolution, an opportunity for universities to establish deeper roots in their communities.
The UK has some of the very best Higher Education institutions and people in the world; the next decades depend on it.