What are universities for? Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis and rebuilding for the future

In April this year, Madano reported on the challenging situation faced by the UK’s universities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Likening the sector’s difficult circumstances to a game of Kerplunk in which all of the straws have suddenly been removed, we predicted that “a university degree could be a tough sell to the 2020/21 intake who may consider a gap year instead.”

That reads like a real understatement following recent events at Manchester Metropolitan University. Students at the campus described themselves as “completely neglected” after they were forced to self-isolate for two weeks when 127 of them tested positive for COVID-19. The situation left 1,700 students all trying to source food – and, more importantly for them, alcohol – from the same local supermarkets. Security guards prevented residents from going outside to shop amid complaints of “little in the way of pastoral care”.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is also less of a fan of the university experience than some of his predecessors. He recently ditched the target, introduced by New Labour and adopted by successive governments, of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education, replacing it with a focus on further education and vocational training.

Accusing universities of failing to prepare graduates for the UK workforce, he said: “For too long, we’ve been training people for jobs that don’t exist. We need to train them for the jobs that do exist and will exist in the future. We have to end the focus on qualifications for qualifications’ sake.” And, this week, prime minister Boris Johnson finally delivered on recommendations from the Augar Review into post-16 education, pledging to end the gulf between further and higher education, commenting:

“We seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates, and on the other hand too many graduates with degrees which don’t get them the jobs that they want.”

The prime minister and education secretary’s comments chime with the sentiments of a couple of recently published books. Both political philosopher Michael Sandel – in The Tyranny of Merit – and journalist David Goodhart – in Head, Hand, Heart – argue that it’s time to reassess our notions of success and failure, and particularly how they relate to higher education and work.

And last month, Stefan Collini, professor emeritus of intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, delivered a withering assessment of the UK’s higher education sector:

“Universities are overcrowded and understaffed; contact hours are reduced; most teaching in the first two years is done by temporary and part-time staff; and underprepared students suffer debilitating stress. Moreover, instead of reliably leading to a better job, all it guarantees is a higher tax bill for the next 30 years.”

As a number of voices begin to question the actual purpose of universities, many institutions may need to adapt by reframing what they stand for and the benefit they deliver to society.

Opportunities

Despite mounting challenges, there are still opportunities for universities to thrive. One possibility is the government’s levelling up agenda, which promises to redirect investment to regions outside London and the south-east. Keen to retain its newly won “red wall” across the Midlands and the north of England, the present administration is likely to welcome potential development in those areas.

Universities have a real opportunity to play a central role in transforming their local area, whether through forging partnerships with local authorities and businesses, providing students with the skills needed for the region to thrive or persuading students to live and work in the area following graduation. Showing their commitment to their community in this way would allow universities to demonstrate their ongoing relevance and value in what is likely to remain an unpredictable environment for the foreseeable future.

What students want

As discussed by Sandel and Goodhart in their respective publications, traditional academic criteria provide a limited measure of an individual’s overall knowledge, skills and intelligence.

In fact, Madano’s own research into the higher education sector has found that students are seeking to acquire more tangible skills that they can apply directly to the workplace, and often in more practical disciplines.

Today’s students regard employment at the end of a degree as a given. Considering the huge amount of money they’re expected to shell out in tuition fees and the tens of thousands of pounds of debt they’re destined to graduate with, is it any wonder?

Given the current expectation that a degree will inevitably lead to a job, perhaps it’s time for universities to improve the vocational support they offer students beyond simply academic preparation. Many already give advice on job applications and interview skills to improve undergraduates’ chances of securing a position once they’ve completed their studies, but they could develop this offer and make it available to a greater number of students.

Aside from traditional employment, there could be an opportunity for universities to broaden their role by encouraging greater entrepreneurship and helping students to help themselves. By advising students how to set up their own company and putting young entrepreneurs in touch with potential partners, the higher education sector could recast itself as a genuine friend to business and safeguard its continuing relevance.

Rearticulating purpose

More than at any other time in recent history, the value and purpose of universities are being questioned right across the political spectrum. Outside of the familiar top-tier names, universities need to reassess and rethink why they do what they do and then rearticulate that concept in a way that speaks to students and meets wider societal objectives, keeping both government and the general public on side.

Universities that are agile, maintain two-way communication with their student body and take advantage of the current government agenda are likely to be best positioned to take the lead in shaping the sector as it moves forward.

By Dan Townshend, Senior Research Manager in Madano’s Insights practice.