Universities must fight ‘unfair’ claims of elitism

Universities are facing a crisis of public confidence born of being “unfairly categorised as elite, aloof and detached from individuals, communities and day to day challenges”, according to Alistair Jarvis, the new chief executive of Universities UK, in his first public speech.

He said: “It is time to fight back. It is time for universities to address this crisis of confidence. Universities are positive and powerful institutions delivering deep and lasting value to communities in all corners of the world. Universities are forces for good in our world.”

Speaking to more than 900 higher education professionals in a keynote speech at CASE Europe's annual conference in Birmingham on 29 August, Jarvis challenged the university sector to redouble its efforts to highlight the value and positive impact of universities.

He added: “We need to respond to reputational challenges, robustly, with evidence, promoting our values, promoting our impact and engaging with a diverse range of audiences. Now is the time to demonstrate the huge value and positive impact of universities.”

He told delegates that in the United Kingdom it seems to be open season on universities.

“Whether it is attacks on the value of a degree, problems with the tuition fees system, senior staff being overpaid, or problems with international students, universities are this summer’s scapegoat of choice.

“While universities should certainly be scrutinised and held to account, much of this criticism has been based on little in the way of evidence or context. Indeed, some attacks have lacked any factual accuracy at all,” he said.

“We’ve seen a post-truth summer of misinformation, muddled argument and even a little malicious intent.”

Jarvis said universities are making a powerful and positive impact by transforming people’s lives through access to higher education; supporting local communities by creating jobs and providing services; strengthening economies through skills, research, innovation; and improving our society through the impact of our research, through invention and discovery.

He said some of the misconceptions fuelling the crisis of confidence are the belief that a degree isn’t worth having because there are too many graduates; that universities are ivory towers that just benefit the elite and not local communities; and that universities are focused on international links to the detriment of local people, with too many international students at their institutions.

The ripostes should include that in the UK graduates earn substantially more than non-graduates, even when the costs of fees, loans and taxes are taken into account, he said.

A UK government study showed that women with a degree earn on average £252,000 (US$325,000) more over their lifetime than non-graduates. Men with degrees earn on average £168,000 (US$217,000) more than those without.

In addition, graduates are far more likely to find jobs and have an unemployment rate less than half that of non-graduates.

“Across the world, employers are saying they want to employ more not less graduates, the rate of new graduate jobs is growing. In the UK, 74% of new jobs created by 2020 will be in occupations with the highest amount of graduates,” Jarvis said.

Looking beyond the economic benefits, going to university can transform people’s lives and improve life chances, he said. In the UK, entry rates for young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds are at their highest ever levels. In 2016, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in England were 74% more likely to enter higher education than they were 10 years ago.

There are claims that university degrees are no longer valued but the reality is that despite the fall in the number of 18- and 19-year-olds across Britain since 2010, the rate of applications from this age group is at record levels, Jarvis said.

Public value

Addressing accusations of elitism, he said: “It’s right that politicians and the public expect universities to be more than ivory towers, to deliver value to communities beyond the campus boundary. As universities, we need to more effectively demonstrate our public value and engage with diverse communities.

“Universities deliver private benefits to graduates and they also deliver huge amounts of public good. Universities deliver benefits to everyone across society, including those who haven't been to university, in every community.

“Universities train the people that every community relies upon… our teachers, our doctors, our engineers, innovators and wealth-creators. Currently, at UK universities 63,000 nurses, 62,000 doctors and dentists and 75,000 teachers are being trained.”

He said universities contribute more than £73 billion (US$94 billion) to the UK economy, nearly 3% of UK gross domestic product, and support more than 750,000 jobs “in every region” – universities are often the largest employer in their locality and many other jobs depend on spending by universities and their students.

Universities also produce cutting-edge research that changes lives, whether it is medical advances that allow people to live longer and new cures for diseases or engineering expertise that improves housing, makes trains faster and develops new technologies, he said.

“Universities in the UK have been the seeding ground for many of today’s greatest life-changing discoveries. Research conducted in UK universities has contributed to such discoveries as the LCD computer screen, the structure of DNA, fibre optics, developing IVF treatment and the World Wide Web.”

Universities’ research also has a positive impact on communities across the world, helping to tackle pollution, climate change, dirty water supplies; and helping to build understanding between people of different cultures, he said.

In the UK they also provide facilities for the community, from sports centres shared with schools, to galleries and museums visited by the public, free legal advice for residents, support services for businesses and advocacy for the local town, city or region.

“When you return to your campuses, you must redouble your efforts to tackle the myth that universities just benefit the elite and not the person on the street,” Jarvis said.

Explaining benefits of internationalisation

On internationalisation he said: “I make no apologies for our universities being global institutions, but we must get better at explaining why our international links benefit our local communities.”

“We are best when we are outward looking, globally networked and welcoming to the world. We want to play a role in working with international counterparts to address the great global challenges of our age, to seek out and work with the best minds wherever they are.

“But being international doesn't mean we're not having positive local impact. Indeed, it's our global links that make our local impact stronger, from attracting inward investment to joint research on the big challenges of our age.”

Overseas students play a vital role in thriving local economies. The on- and off-campus spending by international students – and their visitors – generates almost £26 billion (US$33 billion) a year for the UK economy, he said.

This spending supports jobs across the UK – their off-campus spending alone generates 206,600 full-time equivalent jobs in communities across every region of the UK.

One major national study suggested that each international student supports 0.45 British jobs. “That means that for every 100 international students that come to study in the UK, 45 jobs are created,” Jarvis said.

The economic activity and employment that is sustained by international students’ off-campus spending generated £1 billion in tax revenues. This annual tax revenue is enough to pay the salaries of 31,700 nurses or 25,000 police officers.

But Jarvis stressed that the value of having students and academics from other countries is about much more than money and jobs. They enrich the academic experience and campus life for all students.

“Campuses are international communities, providing students with early global experience and cultural understanding.

“International staff and students provide skills and ideas that can enrich communities, towns and cities across the UK, and help build the future prosperity of the country as a whole.”

Robust response

Summing up the challenge ahead, he said universities should be robust in challenging evidence-less claims and promoting their expertise. Cabinet Minister Michael Gove – a former education secretary – had famously said, during his campaigning for Brexit, that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Now, Jarvis said: “It is time for the revenge of the experts.”

He said: “We should not be shy in responding to incorrect assertions and using facts to combat myths.

“We need also to support our academic experts to share their expertise in an accessible way … on TV, radio, newspapers, social media, at events, with our communities.”

Jarvis said universities need to develop compelling narratives about their positive impact, using great stories and examples to share insight into how universities have transformed individuals’ lives. Even complex research must be promoted in an accessible way to the public, “varying our narratives to engage diverse communities”.

But “enhancing our reputation” is about more than broadcasting messages; it must involve developing “proper long-term engagement” and building a “shared understanding with our communities”.

This means “listening to and understanding concerns, addressing challenges and adapting when are our engagement isn’t working”.

It also means promoting universities’ values as well as their impact, explaining why these matter and are of benefit to today’s world.

“We must redouble our efforts to promote the values of openness, diversity, internationalism, freedom of speech, tolerance – that make British universities the envy of the world,” Jarvis said.

“It is time to fight back.”