Universities have a ‘key role in tackling social deprivation’

Universities with technical and vocational programmes and an ability to work with business and industry can play a pivotal role in the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, which is intended to address social deprivation and regional inequalities, the Conservative Party Conference was told on Tuesday.

Professor Graham Baldwin, vice-chair of MillionPlus – which represents modern universities – and vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, said: “Our modern universities offer a variety of courses, often reflecting the needs of their local areas. However, it is our vocational and technical offerings that truly set us apart, and our ability to innovate and work with business and industry to meet key local and regional needs.”

He said that today, many students in modern universities come from the local area too, and 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 organisation within the town or city, often the largest employer, integrated into the very fabric of community life.”

Baldwin said: “We should remember that many of the things that the government say they want to see happening around the country are already taking place, in some instances you just need to know where to look for it.”

He was speaking at a conference side meeting on “Degrees of success – universities and the new normal.” Behind the ‘levelling up agenda’ is a political drive to address concern about whole communities and regions feeling left behind by economic development.

The issue was a key driver for many who voted for Brexit and for many who voted Conservative in traditionally Labour-held seats – particularly its former ‘red wall’ of Labour majority seats in the north of England and Wales – in the last election, giving Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority.

But there is also increasing awareness in higher education in the United Kingdom of the need for universities to play and be seen to play a leading role in stimulating regional and local development, including in socially deprived areas.

Skills agenda is ‘instrumental’

Michelle Donelan, previously universities minister but now minister for further and higher education combined, told the same meeting that the government places great importance on its skills agenda in particular and education more broadly, which it sees as instrumental for the levelling-up agenda.

“Education is the biggest generator of opportunities. As a government, we are on a mission to create opportunities and open those doors across the UK to level up the country – and skills will be part of that, as well as evidence-based policy-making and decision-making.”

She said universities may not be the solution for everybody, but they are “a fundamental part of the recipe of the solution and we will be looking to universities over the coming years to help us with this skills agenda and to play a leading role in that, working closely with further education as well”.

Synergy with labour market needs

Donelan stressed that the government needs to bring synergy between educating people and labour market needs. “For too long we have been educating people in courses that don’t always deliver for local labour market needs or for national labour market needs.”

Some universities are leading the way but much more needs to be done, she said, as there are some universities where more than half the graduates from some courses do not get a graduate level job.

The government is embarking on a “skills revolution” as a key driver of change. She believes the new lifelong learning entitlement will be transformative, “making the education system much more flexible, making it fit for today’s world, so people can do bite-sized chunks, be that in higher technical qualifications, be that at degree level, and it will unlock higher education to a whole swathe of the population who thought it was never for them”.

She cited the challenge for mature students, for whom it is “quite a difficult ask” to take three years out when you have a family, a mortgage and other responsibilities. “If you can do a term, and might only need that term to upskill or reskill and progress with your career, and that is something this government is going to be delivering.”

However, the context is that there has been a dramatic fall-off in the number of part-time students since university tuition fees tripled following reforms introduced in 2012 under a Conservative-led coalition government, making fees the highest in the world for publicly funded institutions.

The key to making lifelong learning work, Donelan acknowledged, is having a support system in terms of loans, which previous governments have not addressed. “It will unlock higher education to a whole swathe of the population who never thought it available to them.”

But she said social mobility is also all about outcomes, not just getting to college but completing the course and landing a graduate level job. She urged universities to embrace the lifelong learning entitlement, link up with businesses in the whole community and invest in higher technical qualifications and degree apprenticeships in particular.

Universities’ role in their communities

Baldwin said his own university, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), had already shown how universities can play a leading role in increasing opportunity and growth in their communities.

Particularly in areas being classified as ‘left behind’, when other sectors have scaled down or moved out, it has been the higher education sector in many parts of the country that has “brought new life into these communities and expanded the horizons and opportunities for the people who live there”, he said.

As an example, UCLan has founded and established two campuses in addition to its main campus in Preston, in areas previously in danger of being ‘left behind’ – namely Burnley and Westlakes, in West Cumbria.

“Here, the academic provision is fine-tuned to meet economic and skills demands for those respective areas, working with our fellow civic pillars of local authorities, National Health Service health trusts, and providers of further education, to create an offer of relevance and practical importance for the towns and wider regions they serve,” Baldwin said.

He said students recruited in these areas could be just out of school or college, or mature learners looking to upskill or reskill, and the presence of these institutions in these exact locations has “made a huge difference and prevented those communities from either losing those talented local people and their skills or having them give up on education altogether through a lack of access”.

He said Westlakes was a particularly good example of responding to local need, having transitioned from provision largely targeted at the nuclear industry to provision related mainly to the social care industry.

Baldwin also cited several examples of MillionPlus universities working with local businesses to the benefit of students and industry, including a collaborative commercial relationship between the University of Cumbria and the Sellafield nuclear site to provide specialist education, training and the qualifications necessary to deliver the projects for the vital nuclear industry in the region.

At the University of Sunderland there is a knowledge exchange programme built on research to support and build product development and technological advancement for small and medium enterprises in the northeast, amounting to more than 6,000 hours of support given to manufacturers all over that region.

Government urged to protect funding

Baldwin urged the government to protect the level of funding per student in higher education to ensure that work such as this can continue and grow.

“If we want to keep committing to building our links with business in every region of the UK, if we want to develop the research capabilities that will have material impact and, most importantly, if we want to offer cutting-edge courses and the best student experience anywhere in the world, then we do need the support that goes with that,” he said.

“This means both research funding, which remains too hyper-concentrated in this country, but also crucially it means maintaining the unit of resource that all students can expect to be invested in their university to give them every chance to thrive.”

He said this was key to cementing “our universities as the social, cultural and academic hubs of our towns, cities and regions” post-pandemic.

The full discussion on ‘Degrees of success – universities, levelling up and the new normal’ can be watched on YouTube.