02 Oct 2020
In a speech this weekend to an online fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, Chair of MillionPlus and Vice-Chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University, will say that Britain’s modern universities are instrumental to the country’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.
The event, titled Back in Business: what can modern universities do to support Britain's recovery?, held in partnership with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and hosted by ConservativeHome, will stream live on Sunday 4 October (see registration details in the Notes to Editors). In addition to Professor Thirunamachandran, also speaking will be Universities Minister Michelle Donelan MP and Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI.
Universities stepped up at the height of the crisis, Professor Thirunamachandran will say, before outlining the ways in which modern universities stand ready to help with the recovery effort in every part of the country.
“We have seen universities step up to every challenge at the height of the pandemic,” Professor Thirunamachandran will say. “As we move forward and onto the road to recovery, what more can we do genuinely build back better?”
Modern universities are the powerhouses of the public services, he will say:
“Modern universities educate 71% of our nurses and 63% of those studying allied health programmes. Similarly, of those studying teacher education 58% do so at a modern university - alongside the majority of social workers. Half a dozen modern universities now train medics thanks to the government’s expansion programme on medical training since 2015. Indeed, at MillionPlus institutions, 28% of all students can be seen to be in education that leads onto becoming a key worker, which compares to fewer than one in six at the older universities.”
With the economic impact of the virus biting hard, education with a vocational grounding will be vital so that people can re-skill and re-train for new careers in emerging fields.
He will say:
“…The need to boost work-focused and technical education has rarely been so pressing. Modern universities specialise in these types of courses, offering an enormous variety of work-relevant courses as well as higher technical qualifications that upskill and reskill our current and future workforce.
“The vast expertise present within higher education adds to the depth and relevance of these courses, ensuring that the most up to date and relevant courses are on offer, with the right facilities and cutting-edge industry experience available to make study relevant to the workplace and the multiple careers that someone in their teens will likely have over their working lives.”
It is vital to the economic recovery that opportunities to boost skills reach every part of the country, avoiding hyper-concentration in the same places as we have seen in the past.
Professor Thirunamachandran will say:
“Modern universities serve communities across the UK that are seen as having been ‘left-behind’, and act as anchors in their communities, providing links and co-ordination with businesses in their areas, ‘real-world’ research projects to boost the local economy, and the education and training of those that live there. Continuing the old, centralised model of hyper-concentration of both resources and focus will lead to the same old results: it will leave another generation of people in some parts of the country without the attention and opportunities they deserve.”
He will close by urging the government to help modern universities that they can keep up this vital work - keep training our key public workers, keep boosting technical higher education, keep ensuring that every part of the UK has access to world-class higher education.
He will say:
“Put simply, modern universities can help drive our recovery and are incredibly well placed to do so. With the help and support of government it can be through our modern universities where we can ensure that 2021 will see the UK truly back in business.”
*******CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY*******
Back in Business: what can modern universities do to support Britain's recovery?
Conservative Party Conference
Sunday 4 October 2020
Thank you all very much for taking time out of your weekend to join us today for what is a unique and new experience for us all. MillionPlus has been holding fringe events at Conservative Party Conference for many years now, but like with almost everything in 2020, an online fringe meeting such as this is a first for us, as I am sure it will be for many of you. Whilst we may not be able to be together today in person today in Birmingham, I am heartened that we can reach a wider audience online at this critical time for the country. I hope that those logging on will find this an interesting discussion on a topic of real importance.
Despite our social distance I’m grateful we have an excellent panel today, and I’d like to thank them for joining us this morning. Nick Hillman is no stranger to discussion about HE, and his work through Hepi has done so much to improve our understanding of how we as a sector operate – while at the same time challenging universities to better articulate our positive impact on Britain while responding to political drivers. I am sure Nick will offer both of those things this morning.
Alongside him I would like to thank the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, for joining us today. We are incredibly pleased to have her here, and before we begin, I would like to pay tribute to the work that her and her team having been doing with us as a sector during the fight against this pandemic. It has been a herculean challenge for us all, and something of a baptism of fire for Michelle herself no doubt, but by working together we have managed to secure some successes in ensuring that the NHS is supported and that our students' education continues, so thank you for that Minister.
Our theme today is back in business and how modern universities can help the UK bounce back better. This pandemic has dominated everything that we have done this year, but I am pleased to say that through the creativity and hard work of colleagues, universities have demonstrated compellingly what we can contribute to the country, and what more we can offer.
Throughout these past months, and as universities reopen this term, our foremost duty is the protection, well-being and safety of our students and staff, and our dedication to ensure they receive a high-quality education. This is true across every university, and during my conversations with other vice-chancellors I have heard the steps all are taking to that effect. Clearly major challenges still exist, and we have seen recently just how difficult it can be to navigate them, but I know whole heartedly that every university has put in place rigorous systems, and invested time and resources to ensure they are as safe as they can possibly be. All of us are working with local health teams and with our staff and students to build a partnership that keeps everyone safe, and we need to support this work across the country at this critical time.
Beyond the core principle of student and staff safety, we have also seen universities support our hospitals, the social care system and our schools. From student nurses moving to work in the NHS, to ensuring our frontline services have the equipment and support they needed when they needed it most. Each university across the country, in so many different ways, stood up and played its part in the ongoing battle against Covid.
These past few months have shown what can be achieved against the odds, indeed the fact that we are able to be here today across technology that many of us hadn’t even heard of speaks to that as well. It is my hope, and my belief, that although this has been a horrible experience for most, we will come out of it with not just ideas about how to solve problems, but also how we can actually make things better in the future.
It is to that future that we focus on today at this fringe event. Whilst we have seen universities step up to every challenge at the height of the pandemic, as we move forward and onto the road to recovery, what more can we do genuinely build back better? What roles should we play in the years ahead, how can we best respond to the government’s priorities and meet manifesto commitments?
Of course, for many universities the answer may seem obvious, and the incredible work being done on a possible vaccine for example highlights the power of UK research that is rightly envied around the world. My focus, however, and the focus of our discussion today, is on the modern university sector, which has played a pivotal role. This part of the sector makes up more than half of UK higher education, it educates over a million students each year, and impacts every region of the country, and beyond. We offer flexible provision, catering not just for those looking for a campus experience but also for those commuting to study, seeking to ‘learn while they earn’ and for those employed as degree apprenticeships by our industry partners.
This flexibility of provision should be boosted by the policy changes announced on Tuesday by the Prime Minister on reskilling. We very much welcome the announcement that modular study will attract loan support, but shifting policy further by switching from maintenance loans to grants would really make a difference to people’s ability to keep up with the overall costs of study, not just paying the fees.
Modern universities are a key plank of a diverse and truly world beating higher education sector. In almost every country of the world you will find students, businesses, and governments, keen to work with universities from Bath Spa all the way up to Sunderland in the North-East and the Environmental Research Institute which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands in Caithness. As the Secretary of State rightly said last month, when speaking to university leaders, the diversity of the UK’s higher education sector remains one of its greatest strengths, and it also remains one of our major assets in the recovery to come.
First and foremost, modern universities are the powerhouses of the UK’s public services, providing education and training in every part of the UK to the next generation of key workers, whose value has been so emphatically underlined this year. Modern universities educate 71% of our nurses and 63% of those studying allied health programmes. Similarly, of those studying teacher education 58% do so at a modern university - alongside the majority of social workers. Half a dozen modern universities now train medics thanks to the government’s expansion programme on medical training since 2015. Indeed, at MillionPlus institutions, 28% of all students can be seen to be in education that leads onto becoming a key worker, which compares to fewer than one in six at the older universities.
To build on those ambitious agendas, MillionPlus produced a report in May looking into ways of strengthening and enhancing key public service capacity within universities, and we were pleased to work with government to discuss these measures and what steps we should take. Our institutions have the expertise and experience of training thousands of people for these critical roles, and we must not forget how critical these students and graduates are in keeping our public services running.
The challenge is great – the NHS alone needs 100,000 more health professionals in the next few years to hit the government’s rightly ambitious plans to improve care. I was delighted that the Secretary of State responded in the summer to this agenda by ring-fencing an additional 5,000 student places for clinical subjects and then by lifting the caps on medical and clinical places in late August. This must just be the start of a truly joint effort between government and universities to build up our NHS workforce. We have the scope to expand, and expand quickly, with the right support from across government and the NHS.
As we move towards recovery we will need as much capacity, as well as expertise, in these areas as we can possibly have, and it will be at modern universities where most of this is found. With hospitals and schools being two of the areas that have been most impacted by the pandemic, we need to work with, and support, our nurses, teachers, health workers to help them to function as normally as possible. This will doubtless be priority number one for any government, and we ask the secretary of state to bear in mind that it is modern universities are here to help them do just that.
Despite being able to step up to the plate on Covid-19 and how we can build this recovery, HE has faced other challenges and criticism on different fronts. We take seriously the topics of free speech, trends in degree classifications, and the workings of university admissions. We have, and we continue to respond to such concerns with a commitment to listen and to act to reassure.
While we see higher education absolutely as a public and social good, we also do our level best to ensure that graduates leave university well equipped for the 21st century workplace - and for rewarding careers in every sense. We continue to challenge ourselves to step up further on this, while not forgetting what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said in February, which is that the option of higher education is generally a sound purely financial investment for the vast majority who chose it, and for the wider economy.
Away from educating our future public servants, the country needs a broader social and economic stimulus across the entire nation to recover. With unemployment rising the need to boost work-focused and technical education has rarely been so pressing. Modern universities specialise in these types of courses, offering an enormous variety of work-relevant courses as well as higher technical qualifications that upskill and reskill our current and future workforce.
The vast expertise present within higher education adds to the depth and relevance of these courses, ensuring that the most up to date and relevant courses are on offer, with the right facilities and cutting-edge industry experience available to make study relevant to the workplace and the multiple careers that someone in their teens will likely have over their working lives.
The government are rightly committed to putting technical and vocational work on a par with pure academic courses, indeed the T-Levels that have been introduced serve to achieve this very purpose. MillionPlus members have contributed to the development of some of the T Level curricula and also to proposals announced by the Secretary of State in July on improving the brand and profile of HE courses below degree level, courses that have seen lower demand as a result of policy changes from prior governments.
Modern universities have long been the higher education institutions across the UK providing world-class work-focused courses that enhance employment prospects and stimulate productivity. Supporting our universities in these difficult times will mean building on these already successful programmes by providing education and training to all who can benefit from it.
Alongside identifying which courses are able to boost jobs and stimulate the economy, where they are to be found is also a critical component. As we have seen over these months, the best outcomes are achieved through local expertise and an ability to reach every part of the country. The UK is fortunate in that it has a network of universities stretching across almost every city and region, and many of these are not only centres of learning, they are also the major economic drivers for their areas.
The government is absolutely right to hone-in on the importance of levelling-up across the country, and on the importance of ‘place’ when making decisions. For too long we have been focused on a hyper-concentration of resources in the richest areas of the UK, a fact that was rightly pinpointed as a reason why levelling-up across the UK is now so important and overdue.
Modern universities serve communities across the UK that are seen as having been ‘left-behind’, and act as anchors in their communities, providing links and co-ordination with businesses in their areas, ‘real-world’ research projects to boost the local economy, and the education and training of those that live there. Continuing the old, centralised model of hyper-concentration of both resources and focus will inevitably lead to the same old results: it will leave another generation of people in some parts of the country without the attention and opportunities they deserve.
Modern universities are not part of that old model. We offer something different. Our members have distributed campuses enabling local learning throughout, for instance, the county of Cumbria, in towns such as Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton. At Canterbury Christ Chruch University I have my own university’s teaching centre in the deprived area of Medway in partnership with Kent, and a new medical school providing opportunities to those who may not be able to travel from, say, Ramsgate, to central London to train.
In a similar way, Bolton University and London Southbank now have FE colleges and academies as an integral part of their university groups, enabling learners to seamlessly progress from vocational or academic qualifications at the school or college to technical or wider HE study at the university. And we support students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities much more than others. One modern university in London educates 14 times more black students than the similarly-sized older university where I gained my degree many moons ago.
We believe that the government needs to build on what it has so positively already set out, ensuring that ‘levelling-up’ and ‘place’ don’t become terms that we reflect upon in five years as opportunities missed. They need to be tangibly supported by government, and modern universities are incredibly well placed to help them succeed in this regard. If some parts of the UK are unable to recover from the pandemic then it shouldn’t be said that the UK will have recovered from it. We will have dropped the ball by not rebalancing prosperity and opportunity more equitably across the country.
I know that none of what I have said is easy to sort out overnight, and in these challenging times it is perhaps comforting to return to how things used to be. Some want us to be back to normal, some want us to find a ‘new normal’, but I believe instead of either of these we should try to find something even better. Modern universities have proved over this year how vital they are in their communities, and how critical they are to the UK’s HE ecosystem.
A government that supports the whole sector must support our modern universities to keep doing this work – keep training our key public workers, keep boosting technical higher education, keep ensuring that every part of the UK has access to higher education and all that comes with it. Put simply, modern universities can help drive our recovery and are incredibly well placed to do so. With the help and support of government it can be through our modern universities where we can ensure that 2021 will see the UK truly back in business.
Notes to editors