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strive to raise their game by improving every aspect of what we do, much of the media narrative is informed by either outdated thinking – or a simple lack of understanding of what higher education is about in the 21st century.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.

If the Government won’t force the Tory shires to build more houses, perhaps it should bribe them instead

18 Dec

There was something soul-crushingly inevitable about announcement that the Government is going to abandon the algorithm at the heart of its planning reforms. But how big a setback is it?

To hear them tell it, not much. The core overhaul of the planning system – summarised here by London YIMBY – remains in place, including the part where areas are ‘zoned for growth’, a process that will, as Housing Today puts it, “grant automatic permission for development in certain areas”.

But ‘zoning for growth’ is only useful if you do it where the demand is. It is quite clearly a mechanism for brute-forcing a degree of much-needed development past the “more homes yes, but not here” brigade. Yet following a mutiny by Conservative backbenchers, Robert Jenrick has abandoned the algorithm the Government had been using to decide where such zones should go.

We don’t yet know what is going to replace it, but we do know that it will fall much less heavily on leafy, Tory-voting shire seats in the South East – a tactical victory for MPs such as Theresa May, whose Maidenhead constituency is now spared the shadow of a few hundred new homes.

The go-to solution for these MPs seems to be more development in urban areas. But this is clearly parcel-passing, and the problems are various. In London, where the demand really is, it will likely mean another unpopular application of ‘zoning for growth’ to push for densification in the (also Conservative-voting) suburbs. Otherwise it entails, as Bob Seely suggested in a piece for this site, shifting housebuilding targets northwards (where the demand isn’t) in the vague hope that economic regeneration will follow.

Unless you have ‘simultaneously build more houses and make no dent in the housing shortage’ on your housing policy bingo card – and given the state of British housing policy, you might – this likely isn’t a good idea.

In any event, given the backlash it will likely spark (Google ‘garden grabbing’ for a foretaste of it) it seems probable that the Government will eventually retreat from this as well, raising the spectre of a wholesale surrender of any effort to fix the Southern housing shortage by shifting the focus northwards under the rubric of ‘levelling up’.

If so, that would stand in a long and counter-productive Conservative tradition of trying to solve the problem without aggravating any of the vested interests in the Party’s electoral coalition, such as the repeated efforts of Chancellors from George Osborne onwards to solve a supply problem by pumping more demand into the market via schemes such as Help to Buy.

Yes, housing is a complicated problem and issues such as excessive credit – which we tackled in the ‘Homes’ section of the ConHome Manifesto – are part of it. But if your goal is to spread genuine property ownership, then jury-rigging mechanisms for getting cut-price assets into the hands of first-time buyers runs into the same problem that Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to create a ‘shareholding democracy’ did: how do you stop people selling them on at full price? Laws restricting the scale of mortgage lending to more old-fashioned levels may be part of the answer, but its absurd to pretend that they’re an alternative to building more houses.

Addressing the housing shortage – and once again for those at the back, the Southern housing shortage – has to be a strategic priority for the Conservatives. The current situation is delaying home-ownership, family formation, and otherwise reshaping society in ways antithetical to conservatism.

Not only is this squeezing the Party’s position in London, where the Tory vote in many seats has collapsed even since 2010, but it will spread the issue across the South East and the East of England as more London-based workers trade a longer commute for more affordable housing. Where Brighton and Canterbury have lead, many more true-blue seats could follow.

But what to do? Some of the Conservative-leaning think-tanks have their ideas. Alex Morton, the head of policy at the Centre for Policy Studies and a housing specialist, is working proposals to make an obligation to build part of planning permissions, to prevent developers banking the land value uplift without doing anything in return.

A paper for the Adam Smith Institute suggests the right ‘YIMBY’ policies could unlock up to five million homes in London alone, and they have elsewhere floated the idea of building ‘commuter villages’ near existing railway stations, effectively replicating the ‘Metroland’ project which saw swathes of north-west London effectively built by the Metropolitan Railway. But it isn’t obvious that London’s main commuter lines could take this extra pressure (at least until High Speed ‘it’s-capacity-really’ 2 is finished), and in any event a proposal that involves building on the green belt is politically-speaking just a thought experiment.

Policy Exchange also lean towards densification, drawing on the work of the late Sir Roger Scruton’s lamentably-named ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’.

However rather than trying to brute-force development through in the teeth of local opposition, which is what ‘zoning for growth’ aimed to do, this agenda aims to win public support both by making sure new developments are attractive (cue the lamentations of architects) and by making sure existing homeowners profit from new developments:

“They propose that we allow streets to hold a vote on whether to let homeowners redevelop their homes. If a two-thirds majority support it, homeowners would receive planning permission to add floors to their homes and to take up more of their plot area. The limits on what streets should be able to grant themselves would be those of traditional European cities: five-storey buildings in a terraced format. Many streets would probably choose to go up to these limits in order to maximise the increase in property values.”

Stuffing the mouths of vested interests with gold is a British policymaking tradition – it’s how Labour sold doctors on the NHS, after all – and is probably going to be essential if the Government intends to succumb to Tory MPs’ demands that planning be ‘locally-led’. The alternative is waiting until Labour get into office and unleash a housing programme drawn up with no regard whatsoever to the interests and preferences of Conservative voters and MPs. Which, at that point, some might feel they deserve.

Whatever path he chooses, the clock is now ticking for Boris Johnson. If he wants the new planning system to have had any impact on the situation in the country by the next election, he really needs to have it on the books by the end of 2021. Otherwise new applications and so on won’t have time to get through. But if he rushes into a second policy that gets thrown out by MPs, that’s very likely to mark the end of any serious efforts at planning reform in this Parliament.

As I noted recently with regards to green targets, this country has a very bad habit of endlessly putting off difficult infrastructure decisions. That the Government is still dithering over expanding Heathrow suggests this hasn’t changed. The Prime Minister’s tendency towards procrastination is well-known.

But solving the housing crisis is not just of national but of existential political importance to the Tories in a way our ports, airports, and road network frankly aren’t. Johnson needs to make a decision; it needs to be the right decision; and it needs to be soon. If he isn’t prepared to be Britain’s house-building Bonaparte, the Prime Minister needs to be clear what Plan B is.