Universities with technical and vocational programs and an ability to work with business and industry can play a central role in the government’s “leveling” agenda, which aims to tackle social deprivation and regional inequalities, said Tuesday the Conservative Party conference.
Professor Graham Baldwin, Vice-President of MillionPlus – which represents modern universities – and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), said: “Our modern universities offer a variety of courses, often reflecting the needs of their region. However, it is our professional and technical offerings that really set us apart, as well as our ability to innovate and work with business and industry to meet key local and regional needs.
He said that today many students at modern universities also come from the region and the institutions pride themselves on being a visible and active part of the community.
“In many parts of the country, the local university has become the largest organization within the city or town, often the largest employer, integrated into the very fabric of community life.
Baldwin said: “We have to remember that a lot of the things the government says it wants to happen in the country are already happening, in some cases you just have to know where to look for them.”
He was speaking at a side meeting at the “Levels of Success – Universities and the New Normal” conference. Behind the “upgrading program” lies a political will to respond to concerns about communities and entire regions that feel left behind by economic development.
The issue has been a key factor for many of those who voted for Brexit and for many who voted Tory in traditionally Labor seats – particularly its former ‘Red Wall’ of Labor majority seats in the north of the United States. England and Wales – in the last election, giving Boris Johnson a majority of 80 seats.
But UK higher education is also increasingly aware of the need for universities to play and be seen to play a leading role in stimulating regional and local development, including in the areas socially disadvantaged.
The skills agenda is “instrumental”
Michelle Donelan, formerly Minister of Universities but now Minister of Combined Higher and Higher Education, said at the same meeting that the government places great importance on its skills agenda in particular and education in general, that it considers to be decisive for the upgrading program.
“Education is the greatest generator of opportunities. As a government, it’s our mission to create opportunities and open those doors across the UK to bring the country up to speed – and skills will be part of that, as well as policy making and leadership. evidence-based decision. “
She said that universities may not be the solution for everyone, but that they are “a fundamental part of the recipe for the solution and we will look to universities over the next few years to help us in this. this skills program and play a leading role in it. , also working in close collaboration with continuing education.
Synergy with labor market needs
Donelan stressed that the government must create a synergy between the education of the people and the needs of the labor market. “For too long we have been teaching people in courses that don’t always meet the needs of the local labor market or the needs of the national labor market. “
Some universities are leading the way, but there is still a long way to go, she said, as there are universities where in some courses more than half of graduates do not get university-level jobs.
The government is embarking on a ‘skills revolution’ as a key driver of change and she believes the new right to lifelong learning will be transformative, ‘making the education system much more flexible, making it responsive. in today’s world, so that people can bite. big chunks, whether it’s in higher technical qualifications, whether it’s degree level, and that will unlock higher education to a whole part of the population that thought it was never for them.
She cited the challenge for mature students, for whom it’s a “pretty tough request” to take three years when you have a family, a mortgage and other responsibilities. “If you can do a term and all you need is that term to upgrade your skills or develop and advance in your career, and that’s something this government is going to deliver.”
However, the background is that there has been a dramatic drop in the number of part-time students since university tuition fees tripled following reforms introduced in 2012 under a Conservative-led coalition government, this which makes them the highest in the world for public funds. establishments.
The key to making lifelong learning work, Donelan acknowledged, is to have a support system in terms of loans, which previous governments failed to address. “This will unlock higher education for a whole section of the population who never thought of it available to them.”
But she said social mobility was also about outcomes, not just entering college but also completing the course and landing a college-level job. She urged universities to embrace the right to lifelong learning, to link with businesses across the community, and to invest in higher technical qualifications and degree apprenticeships in particular.
The role of universities in their communities
Baldwin said his own university, UCLAN, has previously shown how universities can play a leading role in increasing opportunity and growth in their communities.
Particularly in areas classified as left behind, when other sectors have been downsized or relocated, it is the higher education sector in many parts of the country that has “brought new life to these communities and broadened horizons and opportunities for the people who live there, ”he said.
For example, UCLAN has founded and established two campuses in addition to its main campus in Preston, in areas previously threatened with ‘being left behind’, namely Burnley and Westlakes, in the west of the Cumbria.
“Here, the academic offering is refined to meet the economic and skill demands for these respective fields, working with our fellow civic pillars from local authorities, National Health Service health trusts and continuing education providers to create a relevant and practical offer. importance to the cities and larger regions they serve, ”said Baldwin.
He said that students recruited in these fields might be barely out of school or college, or mature learners looking to upgrade or upgrade, and the presence of these institutions in these specific locations has “made a big impact. huge difference and has prevented these communities from losing these talented local people and their skills or having them all together abandon education for lack of access ”.
He said Westlakes was a particularly good example of responding to local needs, having moved from a delivery largely targeted at the nuclear industry to one linked primarily to the social care industry.
Baldwin also cited several examples of MillionPlus Universities working with local businesses to benefit students and industry, including a collaborative business relationship between the University of Cumbria and the Sellafield Power Plant to provide specialized education, a training and qualifications necessary to carry out projects for the vital nuclear industry in the region.
At the University of Sunderland, there is a research-based knowledge exchange program to support construction product development and technological advancement for small and medium-sized businesses in the North East, accounting for over 6,000 hours of support to manufacturers throughout this region.
Government urged to protect funding
Baldwin urged the government to protect the level of per student funding in higher education to ensure that work can continue and grow.
“If we are to continue to commit to building links with businesses in all parts of the UK, if we are to develop research capabilities that will have a material impact and, most importantly, if we are to offer cutting edge courses and the best student anywhere in the world, then we need the support that goes with that, ”he said.
“This means both research funding, which remains too hyper-concentrated in this country, but also and above all it means maintaining the resource unit that all students can expect to invest in their university to give them all. the chances to flourish. “
He said this was essential to cement “our universities as the social, cultural and academic hubs of our towns, cities and regions” after the pandemic.
The full discussion on “Grades of Success – Universities and the New Normal” can be viewed on YouTube.