Press release

million+ Chair sets out six point challenge at Conservative Conference

06 Oct 2015

In a speech delivered today (6 October) at a million+ and NUS fringe at the Conservative Party Conference 2015 in Manchester, Professor Dave Phoenix, Chair of million+ and Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University will set out a 6 point challenge to tackle 'old-fashioned prejudice' about the university system which he says is holding back Britain.

Professor Phoenix will be sharing the platform with Jo Johnson MP, Minister for Universities and Science, Megan Dunn, NUS President and Ben Howlett MP. The fringe 'Does Britain only love some universities' is being hosted with Conservative Home.

Professor Dave Phoenix said:

“The Prime Minister's commitment to double the numbers of people going to university from communities where there has been least participation to date, is important.

“But this commitment can only be fulfilled by valuing all of Britain’s universities and by challenging the out-dated idea that you can only get on in today’s Britain if you study at a small handful of institutions. This attitude is based on old-fashioned prejudice which is bad for Britain, bad for business and wastes the talent of thousands of graduates.

“We don't hear anything like enough in the media and in parliament about modern universities which should be much more highly valued and which have often been ahead of the curve. These were the first universities to deliver business degrees and programmes in many of the newer creative industries which now account for one in 12 jobs in the UK. They deliver health and teacher education, have long-standing relationships with employers from Nissan to very small businesses of which they are incredibly proud and they are global players with campuses and transnational partnerships with universities throughout the world.

“This government now has a wonderful opportunity to counter myths and out-of-date prejudices about our universities. Here’s our 6-point challenge:

  • Start by challenging those employers who still limit graduate recruitment to a handful of universities
  • Boost regional growth and support small businesses by promoting a new stream of funding for translational research
  • Help small businesses and people who are already working to retrain with a scholarship tax credit for employers and more flexible funding to support those who want to study part-time
  • Include universities from across the sector in trade delegations and ensure that your Home Office colleagues don't impose even more restrictions on visas for international students
  • Work with your colleagues in Education and change school performance measures which judge schools on the number of students who apply to the 30 most selective universities - they are misleading and will undervalue the government's efforts to widen access
  • Support productivity by ensuring that universities and colleges can work collaboratively rather than in competition to improve professional, technical and vocational education.”


Does Britain Only Love Some Universities?
Conservative Party Conference, 6 October 2015
Full speech by Professor Dave Phoenix

Thank you Peter. It’s great to share a platform with Ben – of whom I already hear great things from Bath Spa University – Megan, and Jo Johnson.

Jo – it’s a pleasure to sit with you on a panel for the first time. Million+ has hosted events at Conservative Party Conference for ten years now, and we are delighted that we have always been joined by the Minister, or Shadow Minister, for Universities. And I’m pleased to say Jo has carried forward the spirit of his predecessors in terms of his willingness to meet university representatives, and I can assure you he isn’t afraid of healthy discussion and debate! Indeed this can be seen from the challenges he laid down in his inaugural speech – challenges that seek to grow recruitment from low participation neighbourhoods, increase the visibility and standing of teaching and of course support the continued development of our world leading research and enterprise activity.

By any measure the UK higher education system is a success story. Graduate employment continues to raise and is now at 84%, student satisfaction averages 86% and the recent Research Excellence Framework showed ¾ of all work submitted was world leading or internationally excellent - so it can be seen that we have a strong base on which to build.

Now Universities Ministers know that Britain has a world-class university system but I’m not sure it has quite caught on with the media, some Whitehall officials and indeed with some members of political parties.

The statistics I gave earlier are not confined to one part of the higher education sector and it is clear to me that we will only address the challenges laid down for the sector if we are able to build on the strengths that the full diversity of UK universities provides. This is not to say there is not scope for further improvement in both teaching and research but no one cluster of universities has a monopoly on excellence in either domain.

To progress agendas based around productivity and advance the societal impact university education can have we have to challenge the prejudice that suggests that you can only get on in today’s Britain if you study at a handful of institutions. It’s bad for Britain, bad for business and wastes the talent of thousands of graduates. We as a sector need to do more to promote success but government also needs to do more to help remove artificial barriers based on out-dated perceptions

Modern universities have often been ahead of the curve. They were the first to deliver business degrees and programmes in many of the newer creative industries which now account for one in 12 jobs in the UK. 70% - yes 70% - of graduates working in the creative industries studied at a modern university.

Modern universities deliver health and teacher education, have long-standing relationships with employers of which we are incredibly proud – my own institution, London South Bank University, has one of the largest proportion of employer-funded degrees in the country – and we are global players with campuses and transnational partnerships throughout the world.

Indeed Employers such as Deloitte  are beginning to realise the impact modern university graduates can have and that they can increase the diversity and quality of their recruits by moving to institution blind selection

So when Conservatives talk about investing in technical education, in the future of the creative and digital economy, in the importance of working with employers, in expanding the UK’s education exports we want you to know that modern universities - and million plus – are on your side and are already generating much of the future workforce.

But there are challenges to be addressed across the sector including pressures on funding.

Fees may have increased – but it’s worth remembering there was also an eighty per cent reduction in the direct grant that universities used to receive. It’s a different way of running and funding institutions but by 2017 we will have had no increase in the fee cap for 5 years.

Following the increase in fees, full-time student numbers have recovered but the same cannot be said for part-time participation where there has been a 40% decline.

Maintenance grants will be switched to maintenance loans in 2016 and students from the poorest backgrounds will need to be encouraged to still apply to university given they may now be borrowing over £17, 000 a year. It has been suggested that fees are elastic and not price sensitive but it’s the overall funding allocation that matters and at some point elastic snaps. It will be essential to ensure, that if progressed, these latest changes are reviewed to look at impact on recruitment.

Overall research funding has been ring-fenced but in real terms this means a reduction and its distribution has become even more selective.

Indeed 72 universities now get less than £5m per annum in government-supported research funding, while 12 universities receive around half of all funding.

I believe we are in danger of hyper-concentration which creates inequity in the unit of resource for students and is bad for regional growth and for small businesses as well.

So if the Government wants to deliver on its productivity plan, fulfil the Prime Minister's ambitions to double progression from communities where going to university has not been a tradition, and increase educational exports let me suggest that it needs to address 6 key issues:

  • promote Britain's world class university system and all of Britain's universities - not just those institutions where politicians from all parties have tended to study - for example ensure greater institutional diversity in the government’s international trade delegations
  • boost regional growth and support small businesses by promoting a new stream of funding for translational research
  • amend the Coalition Government's social mobility measures which judge school success on the number of pupils progressing to the 30 most selective institutions - it's a limiting view of the excellence of the universities at which the majority of students study and undervalues what the government is likely to achieve.
  • make doubly sure that the visa regime for international students is operated in an impartial and unbiased way and think carefully about just why there might have been a 49% decline in the number of Indian students studying in the UK in the last 4 years
  • recognise the importance of universities roles in higher level vocational and technical education working with employers  in collaboration rather than in competition with further education colleges.
  • work with universities to promote teaching excellence, but be prepared to accept that linking a metric-based assessment of teaching with the fees regime may not be the best and most robust way of fulfilling the Conservative manifesto commitment to enhance teaching quality in universities

Not all straightforward, I know, but we look forward to working with Ministers and MPs from across the country to build an even stronger university sector in the next 5 years.


Notes to Editors
1. For further information or to arrange an interview with Professor Dave Phoenix, contact million+ on: |020 7717 1658
2. million+ is a leading university think-tank. More information can be found at
3. Professor Phoenix will be speaking at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on Tuesday 6 October 2015, 10.00 - 11.30