Rama Thirunamachandran: Modern universities and their graduates are a necessity, not a luxury, in a post-Covid Britain

3 Feb

Professor Rama Thirunamachandran is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Canterbury Christ Church University and Chair of MillionPlus. This is a sponsored post by MillionPlus.

Like every sector, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been felt acutely across higher education in 2020, but through the hard work and creativity of those working on and off campus, modern universities have demonstrated compellingly what we bring to the country and the economy – and how we can help build back better in 2021.

Modern universities have supported our hospitals, the social care system and our schools in this period. From student nurses moving to work in the NHS, to ensuring our frontline services have the equipment and support they needed when they needed it most, every university stood up and played its part in the fight against Covid.

Modern universities, so-called because they gained university status after 1992, make up more than half of UK higher education, teaching over a million students each year. We offer flexible provision, catering not just for those looking for a campus experience but also for those commuting to study, seeking to “learn while they earn” and for those employed as degree apprentices by our industry partners. We also reach out to students both young and mature from a very diverse and wide range of backgrounds including from disadvantaged communities in some of the poorest areas in the UK.

However, alongside the fight against Covid, HE continues to face challenges and criticism from commentators and occasionally from MPs. While I accept that universities must always strive to raise their game by improving every aspect of what we do, much of the media narrative is informed by either outdated thinking – or a simple lack of understanding of what higher education is about in the 21st century.

Take the quality of provision, for instance. Barely a week passes without talk from certain quarters of “low quality” provision when the simple fact is that the UK HE system has one of the most comprehensive and admired independent quality assurance systems in the world, one which many countries have sought to replicate.

It is our moral and professional responsibility to maintain high quality courses while weeding out poor practice. We know we need to continually raise our game on the employment outcomes our programmes generate for graduates. We are far from complacent on the task ahead on ensuring that our graduates gain highly skilled jobs in the challenging post-Covid economic landscape. A big shift is needed here – we are determined to deliver value for students and the taxpayer, who also foots some of the bill.

Another stick all-too-frequently used to bash universities is the idea of “low value” courses. In essence, these are courses that produce graduates who don’t earn high enough salaries to meet an arbitrary assessment of “value”. The blunt tool of using graduate salary to assess the idea of value reduces graduates – another word for which is “people”, with ambitions and hopes for themselves and their families – to a number, a vehicle for economic output, an infinitesimal addition in the nation’s GDP.

By this crude metric, arts subjects are deemed low value. Pre-pandemic, the creative industries were worth more than £100 billion per year to the economy and employing two million people. If only arts graduates were fish in UK waters, perhaps some would take a different view of their value. Unfortunately, this has been laid bare in the recent government letter to the OfS proposing funding cuts to the teaching grant for higher cost creative arts courses.

Even more galling, graduates in the very specialties we have come to rely on like never before since the start of this pandemic are also consigned in the “low value” category: nurses; paramedics and other allied health professionals; physiotherapists, teachers and many more. What’s more, the salaries that see them lumped into this unflattering category are set by government.

As we clapped those working on the frontline we demonstrated that value to society cannot simply be understood in terms of stellar earnings alone.

While universities can ensure that a student receives a high quality course and ensure support is available to bolster a student’s journey there are so many factors that make up what a good outcome is for a student and graduate – not least student choice, and with a higher education system of fees based on that very premise, we need to be very careful undercutting it and inadvertently subverting student choice just because some people don’t like what they choose.

As important as delivering quality courses, is where those courses are found. The Government is right to hone-in on the importance of levelling-up across the country, and on the importance of “place” in decision making.

Modern universities serve communities across the UK that are seen as having been “left-behind”, acting as anchors, providing links and co-ordination with local businesses, conducting “real-world” research projects to boost the regional economies, and in educating and training those who live locally. These are the “blue wall” seats and their hinterland. An old model of HE is passing away: a model that was based on inflexible courses, an expectation to live on campus, and programmes with little connection to the workplace.

Modern universities are emphatically not part of that old model. Offering something different, our members have distributed campuses enabling local learning throughout, for instance, the county of Cumbria, and in towns such as Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton. At my university, Canterbury Christ Church, a teaching campus is based in the deprived area of Medway and a new medical school provides opportunities to those who may not be able to travel from, say, Ramsgate, to central London to train to become a doctor.

Another aspect of that new university offer is the integration of further education colleges within universities “families”. Two members of the MillionPlus group, Bolton University and London Southbank, now have FE colleges and academies as integral parts of their university groups, enabling learners to seamlessly progress from vocational or academic qualifications at the school/college to technical or wider HE study at the university. As such, plans to strengthen sub-degree education in the Government’s Skills for Jobs white paper are to be welcomed and worked on.

Modern universities support moves to boost opportunities for those seeking to study in FE, including for the new T Levels, which MillionPlus members have had involvement in crafting.

The narrative that pervades that HE and FE are in competition, or that more people should attend colleges and fewer universities or that funding should be re-directed from one to the other is unhelpful and simply misses the point. There is ample room in the local educational landscape for both, as we each possess distinctive but complementary educational missions.

Britain cannot claim to have truly recovered from the pandemic until every part of the country is fit and firing, with prosperity and opportunity shared more equitably across the country. For this very reason the UK government’s plan, again outlined in its recent Skills for Jobs white paper, to create a flexible entitlement to all levels of Post-18 learning is also to be welcomed.

MillionPlus has long called for greater flexibility in the access to student loans for high quality HE courses and for measures to be put in place to help people progress to, and from, their A level, T Level or BTEC attainment. Modern universities stand ready to drive that effort and are increasingly working with the Government and other parts of the education sector to do just that.

Our universities are not a luxury to afford, nor a punchbag for political rhetoric – we are part of the fabric of communities up and down the country and only by working together can we make the recovery truly a recovery for all.