VC Voice | Friday, 9th June 2017

Time to prove our worth

Vice-Chancellor Professor Malcolm Press looks ahead following the 2017 General Election

After the heat and noise of the General Election campaign we now must prepare ourselves for a period of instability, with a hung parliament and a minority government. Like many of you, I’ve been following the campaign with great interest. Not just for the discussions about policies that directly affect us in universities, but also to understand the underlying priorities of an incoming government.  I wanted to share five important themes that are likely to define the landscape in the coming years.

 

Brexit

What stood out for me has more to do with what wasn’t said during the campaign rather than what was – that is, the detail.  Meanwhile, the remaining 27 EU states have made it clear that there can be no cherry picking, that the four freedoms – movement of people, goods, services and capital - are indivisible, and that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.  

The university sector cares about borderless access to students and staff, research and innovation funding, and collaboration.  It is evident, however, that our relationship with Europe in these regards will be different from the position that we currently enjoy, irrespective of the type of Brexit that is negotiated. The sooner we cast our net more widely for collaborative opportunities, the more successful we are likely to be.  A key plank of our new internationalisation strategy is forging academic partnerships that will lead to deep, trusting and enduring cooperation, in research and education.  Every international collaborator represents an open door and we need to be pushing.

Universities

The very fact that the issue of tuition fees was a major talking point in the election demonstrated the heightened levels of concern amongst young people about how they will pay for their education. It’s important that we continue to show clearly the value of going to university and the ways in which gaining a degree provides life-changing opportunities for students.  Work on our Education Strategy is almost complete and the strategy places the student experience at the heart of our approach to delivering a transformative educational journey.

But more will be asked of universities. We will be required to demonstrate our social and economic value and to play a full role in this regard. The onus will be on us to evidence that universities can deliver what’s needed for the country.  Not everyone in government will see us as part of the solution. We need to prove the disbelievers wrong. 

Devolution and place

The challenge of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union will absorb an enormous amount of capacity in Westminster and Whitehall. The counterweight of devolution to Greater Manchester will give us opportunities and, as educators and innovators, we have a key role to play in health and social care, the whole education ecosystem, and the creative industries in the city region.

Work that was underway on an industrial strategy needs to be revived quickly into the rhythms of government and will be key to driving regional growth - place will matter as never before. Resources to drive the industrial strategy will be invested through Innovate UK, the government agency that funds businesses to develop science and technology solutions in partnership with universities. Building and consolidating our partnerships with business will be vital if we want to access these funds and is a key part of our Research and Knowledge Exchange Strategy.  We have already demonstrated that we are excellent at drawing down money from Innovate UK through pump-priming Knowledge Transfer Partnerships.  Thus, we can do it, we now just need to scale up our engagement.

We are also ready to play our full part as a lead institution in developing the skills needed for our economy to be competitive. We expect to see a government consultation on how best skills training might be delivered and we should prepare to play a key role to play here.

Prevent

The recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London have rightly demanded a response from all in civic society about what more we are expected to do to tackle radicalisation, not least on university campuses.  We need to strike the right balance between welcoming free expression of ideas but drawing a very firm line at ideas that seek to undermine our core values and break the law.

Education has a vital role to play in dissolving barriers and building a cohesive society. One area that has received a lot of attention is our Mother Tongue Other Tongue national poetry competition.  It supports children to write poetry in their native language and in a language that they are learning. Children are encouraged to explore and celebrate their own personal and cultural identities and to learn more about those of their peers. The competition turns a perceived problem into an opportunity. 

Visas and immigration

We have always maintained that a tough stance on immigration was likely to have a significant impact on universities. The government cannot achieve its lower net migration target without a major reduction in international student numbers. Quite where this sits as a priority is now in question. We will continue to make the case for the positive benefits of international students and partnerships, but are ever mindful of how the government may make it more expensive for students to come to the UK. International students may have to pay a higher healthcare surcharge, the government is likely to impose quality thresholds on recruitment, and might increase the regulatory burden on admitting universities. Some combination of all three should still be expected.  

I remain confident that we are well positioned.  It is clear that quality is a key driver, both when students choose where to study and staff choose where to work.  We are right to place quality at the heart of what we do.  Our strategy is underpinned by five pillars that describe how we do things, providing the kind of unifying and inclusive foundations that the country needs at a time of uncertainty and fracture: our place in Manchester; our ambition to be impactful; the importance of working in partnership; contributing to communities; and working sustainably.  All these things demonstrate the relevance of our approach and bode well for our future success.

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