Why are universities important?

At the time when we wait with bated breath for the Chancellor to announce where cuts to the BIS budgets will come ,Universities UK has produced a timely publication “Why Invest in Universities” to add to the debate, and to reinforce the importance of universities not just to the economy, but more broadly.

As I often write, it’s important that we create a narrative about higher education, not just about the economic benefits to the individual , but just as importantly, the benefits which do not just accrue to the individual but also to wider society and the benefits that are not purely economic.

UUK suggests that the UK should invest in universities because:

• Universities transform people’s lives through education and through the wider impact of their research.
• Universities help students to develop the skills and knowledge employers need.
• UK university research is academically world leading and more cost effective than anywhere else in the world, providing the ideas and inventions on which future prosperity will be founded.
• University research benefits everyone – creating businesses and jobs, enriching society and stimulating culture.
• Universities help to ensure that the UK remains competitive in the global market by supporting greater business innovation and export-led, knowledge intensive growth.
• Universities’ international success helps secure the UK’s share of global growth and influence.
• Universities are anchor institutions in their regions – they are essential for vibrant local economies and are drivers of innovation and business development.
• Universities are major contributors to the UK economy, generating £73 billion of output in 2011 alone.
• Universities have transformed themselves in many ways over the past decade, including becoming more efficient and cost effective

Evidence is provided for each of these assertions, and it’s good to see yet again the commitment to showing the importance of international students to university income. The report suggests that 12% of university income nationally comes from international students, and identifies how this is importance in maintaining provision of certain STEM subjects. However, the report also acknowledges the growth in the market for international students in Australia, Canada and USA, who are expanding relative to the UK. Referring back to last week’s blog piece on the recent PA Consulting report on how well the UK sector can face global challenges, this seems to be one where external factors rather than internal issues are holding us back.

As we sit and wait for the changes to the BIS budget, this report helps identify the successes of UK higher education, identifying that universities want to:

1. Provide high quality education that meets the UK’s knowledge and skills needs
2. Provide opportunities for all people with the ability and motivation to study at university to be able to do so
3. Deliver world-class research and support innovation
4. Support the UK’s regions and provide opportunities for businesses to enhance their innovation capacity
5. Attract investment and talent from abroad, and maintain the UK’s international competitiveness in foreign markets

and specifically looking at the second of these, the report proposes that government should

“continue to invest, along with universities, in funding
to support social mobility; the allocation of this funding
should recognise the importance of attracting students
to university as well as supporting a diverse student
body while they are studying”

I think we are all waiting to see whetherr the funding for social mobility through the Student Opportunity Fund will continue – if it is reduced, this could have significant impact on those institutions who recruit large numbers of widening participation students, both in terms of their budgets, but more importantly in how they are able to continue to provide transformation learning.