04 Oct 2016
In a speech delivered today at a MillionPlus and NUS fringe at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Professor Dave Phoenix, Chair of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, and Vice-Chancellor at London South Bank University, will outline a four-point challenge to the government as progress towards the Higher Education Bill and Brexit continues.
Professor Phoenix will be sharing the platform with Jo Johnson MP, Minister for Universities an Science, Ben Howlett MP for Bath and Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President for Higher Education The fringe, hosted with ConservativeHome, is titled: Reform or revolution – has the government got it right for universities and students in a post-Brexit world?
“One of the great features of fringe meetings at party conferences is the opportunity to share ideas, highlight areas of agreement but also discuss issues where we disagree with politicians or the government,” Professor Phoenix will say.
In comments focused on the Higher Education and Research Bill, currently under scrutiny by the Public Bill Committee, Professor Phoenix will praise the “good debate” taking place on the finer points of the legislation, before arguing that it’s edges “should be softened,” with a public-duty for universities placed on the face of the Bill.
Turning to Brexit, Professor Phoenix will call on Ministers to guarantee that EU students who enter university between 2017 and 2020 will have access to funding for the duration of their course, saying that the announcement needs to be made “as a matter of urgency”.
He will conclude with a four-point challenge, addressing the HE Bill, Brexit, the visa regime for international students and the government’s aim to improve social mobility.
“First, let’s continue to have a dialogue to ensure that the Higher Education and Research Bill works for students and the sector, and does not in any way water down the justifiably rigorous criteria for university title in England. The Bill must support the principle that universities and the new Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation ‘work in the public interest, placing the necessary value on the links between teaching and research as inseparable parts of one successful system.
“Second, let’s ensure that Brexit negotiations recognise and support the continuation of the UK’s trade in higher education services and research, with both the EU and the wider global community.
“Third, let’s have a visa regime for international students which supports all universities to engage and which does not seek to reduce the number of international students as a back-door means of reducing the general migration numbers.
“And finally let’s find practical and long-term ways of meeting the Prime Minister’s ambitions to promote social mobility, without undermining the autonomy of our universities by forcing them to sponsor a school or an academy, while ignoring the many successful ways in which universities already support schools and colleges.”
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Reform or revolution - have the government got it right for universities and students in a post Brexit world?
Tuesday, 4 October, 10am-11:30am.
I am delighted to be back at the Conservative Party Conference this year, in partnership with the National Union of Students but also with some familiar faces on the platform.
First, our thanks to Ben Howlett who was with us last year but who has continued to be a great champion of students and universities since he was elected to Parliament and who I also know is a great supporter of Bath Spa University in his constituency.
I would also like to thank Jo Johnson. Ministers, especially those whose responsibilities span two departments, have extremely busy lives. So Jo, we were very pleased that you were reappointed by the Prime Minister as Universities and Science Minister and particularly pleased that you are here today.
Now let me be honest: these are challenging times for the UK’s universities - but we start from a position of strength and I would like to reassure you that none of us are resting on our laurels. On the contrary, we are doing everything that we can to remain innovative and attractive and to provide the highest quality teaching and translational research in spite of some very rapid changes to the funding and student support regimes.
For example, if you travel throughout the world to cement new partnerships as I have, one thing that is clear is the esteem with which British higher education and research is held. There is clear recognition that we have a truly world class university system - which includes modern universities, such as those in MillionPlus. It is widely recognised that all UK universities have student exchanges and partnerships with institutions throughout the world. Indeed last week I was at a meeting with the Chinese Premier which included its share of nobel laureates but which also had significant representation from newer universities from across the world with the representatives selected based on their expertise in addressing global challenges. And I should add Minister that your recent visit to China promoting UK higher education had been well received so thank you.
Looking forward many of you will know that the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill is currently being scrutinised by the Public Bill Committee, of which we have two members on our panel. Despite the complexity of the Bill it is rather rapidly making its way through the House of Commons. This is a Bill that is ambitious in scope and seeks to set the framework for the future but I do fear that as we move into the uncertainties of Brexit we may create a framework that loses some of the core principles that have underpinned our success to date before we having clarity about the new world we are moving into.
For those who may not be aware, this Bill is completely changing the sector architecture and further promotes a market approach to higher education in England and the idea that students are consumers. Now, I have made no secret of the fact that I think the government does need to soften the edges of this Bill. Collaboration and working in the public interest are distinguishing features of all UK universities and as such a reference to public interest should appear on the face of the Bill, as it is an elemental principle of our higher education system.
Let’s not forget that many universities, like my own, were originally founded on the basis of public subscription with the ambition of securing a university that ran in the public interest and not for profit. Just because a principle is part of our history doesn’t mean that it should be forgotten or cast aside by legislators in the 21st century.
Competition is, of course, incredibly important, but it cannot be the only factor, or become the dominant force in the sector. Universities have and I trust will continue to have a key role in supporting the public interest and it is also important that we recognise that students are partners in their learning as well as consumers of the services we provide as universities. It is principles such as public interest and partnership that will underpin the delivery of the Governments social mobility targets for example.
Equally, we must never forget that, now more than ever, research informs teaching and teaching informs research. If we are to have the new organisations proposed in the Bill, the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation, it is crucial that we ensure that there are also guarantees of real holistic oversight of the sector, with a Joint Committee of the Boards of these two organisations which has to report to Parliament.
And then, of course, there’s Brexit. We need MPs on the backbenches and Ministers across government departments to make sure the Brexit negotiating team understands that the UK’s trade in higher education services and research is worth over £73 billion per year – a figure that includes the enormous value of our work with EU students which, in turn, contributes towards the country’s exports.
We welcome and support the Chancellor’s announcement that the UK government will underwrite any EU research funding awarded to universities up to the point of Brexit – but this is really just the tip of the iceberg of the assurances that we need.
Brexit negotiations have not yet begun and it is widely acknowledged they will take some time but in such a globally competitive marketplace, universities cannot stand still.
Let me give you just one example. The admissions year for 2017-18 is about to open and we have already started to recruit with open days and other activities. Whilst I recognise the efforts of the Minster and thank him for his support we are still in a position where the Government is silent on the funding arrangements for those EU students who are applying now for next year. To put it bluntly, we cannot afford any further delays. We need a guarantee that EU students who enter university between now and 2020 will have access to funding for the duration of their course. This announcement should be made as a matter of urgency, especially since it would have the added benefit of helping to secure reciprocal arrangements for UK students who want to study in EU Member States during the period of Brexit negotiations and transition.
This brings me to another pressing issue, and a glaring contradiction in UK government policy. On the one hand, the Department of Education rightly recognises the value of international students and wants to increase their numbers; on the other the Home Office appears to want to reduce international student numbers as a way of reducing migration.
For the avoidance of doubt, let me be clear: international students are not economic migrants but a boost to the country’s exports and soft power. They help generate the dynamic academic environment required by all 21st century universities. The type of environment that should not only be available to but should be expected by students attending any UK institution that has been granted university title.
The sensible way forward is to take international students out of the migration figures, counting them separately. Not doing so muddies the waters, benefits no-one and hands advantage and market share to our competitors. I therefore hope all present today support the ambitions of the Department for Education who are right to recognise the mutual benefits that international students bring to our own students, our curriculums, our postgraduate and undergraduate courses and our institutions across the UK.
So let me conclude with four points:
First, let’s continue to have a dialogue to ensure that the Higher Education and Research Bill works for students and the sector, and does not in any way water down the justifiably rigorous criteria for university title in England, and that it also retains the idea that universities and the new sector organisations work in the public interest, placing the necessary value on the links between teaching and research as inseparable parts of one successful system.
Second, let’s ensure that Brexit negotiations recognise and support the continuation of the UK’s trade in higher education services and research, with both the EU but just as importantly in the new world with the wider global community.
Third, let’s have a visa regime for international students which supports all universities to engage and which doesn’t seek to reduce the number of international students as a back-door means of reducing the general migration numbers.
And finally let’s find practical and long-term ways of meeting the Prime Minister’s ambitions to promote social mobility, without undermining the autonomy of our universities by forcing them to sponsor a school or an academy, while ignoring the many successful ways in which universities already support schools and colleges.
The future is full of both challenges and opportunities, but I am confident that, if we work together, we can get it right. As we move forward though let us adapt, and not simply abandon some of the core principles that have underpinned higher education in this great country.
Notes to editors