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What should be on Liz Truss’s to-do list for higher education?

Higher education may not be at the top of the new PM's to-do list, but Alistair Jarvis argues that there is a lot that needs to be done.

Written by Alistair Jarvis |

Alistair Jarvis
Alistair Jarvis is Pro Vice Chancellor (Partnerships and Governance) at the University of London.

Yesterday we discovered that Elizabeth Truss is the UK’s latest Prime Minister.

Although the cost-of-living crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely dominate the early months of a Truss premiership, there are a number of vital but knotty issues regarding universities that should be on the new PM’s to do list.

Still popular

For instance, a plan is urgently needed to meeting the rising demand for higher education. The demographic uplift coupled with persistent strong interest in higher education means that a further expansion of university places will be needed in the years ahead.

However, with tuition fees remaining frozen at £9,250 and inflation rapidly rising, the big strategic challenge for government and the university sector is how to grow high quality provision at scale whilst maintaining quality, despite a falling unit of resource. If action is not taken to address the increasingly difficult funding squeeze then growth with come at the expense of quality. We’ll see worsening staff/student ratios; stretched and declining student support services; falling investment in estates and facilities; further real term falls in pay; and students ultimately left with a lower quality student experience.

Student support

High inflation also poses another political challenge for the new PM, which urgently needs addressing. The cost-of-living crisis will hit students hard, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. Maintenance support for students is not keeping pace with inflation, falling rapidly in real terms. In addition to an uplift in maintenance loans, maintenance grants are also needed, targeted to those that most need the support.

Without action, higher education will increasingly become beyond the means of anyone without generous family financial support – or students will be forced to work much longer hours in paid work, with a significant impact on their studies.

Ms Truss also needs to consider how to meet the skills shortages in the NHS. Expanding medical and healthcare places would be a popular and well targeted investment. A battle with the Treasury on this issue may well be on the near horizon.

Local and global

We need to make universities central to the levelling up agenda. This requires moving beyond warm words. New policy initiatives are needed to maximise the impact of universities on local communities. A new competition for higher education hubs in cold spots would be a good start. There is also scope for new policy ideas to incentivise universities to grow their civic impact. The policy team in number 10 could start by reading the recommendations of the UPP Foundation Civic Universities Commission report.

Having already met the stated international student recruitment targets, a refresh of the international education strategy is needed. What is the UK’s ambition in terms of further growth? How will government develop policy that leverages the huge assets of our universities to project soft power, attract inward investment and deliver positive impact across the globe? What can do done to further promote the UK as a study destination of choice in an increasingly competitive global market? How can the government help to build ‘brand UK’ as the premier, high-quality supplier of transnational education across the world? Have the Government’s priorities changed in light of the Covid-19 pandemic or Russian government aggression?

It is also time for the new PM to bolster and enhance our approach to international research collaboration. A last-ditch attempt to save our association to Horizon would be a good place to start. A compelling and ambitious post-Horizon replacement is a necessary contingency – but one that we cannot wait much longer for.

A full inbox

The confusion at the heart of skills policy also needs addressing by the new PM. Clarity on whether government wants HE and FE to compete or collaborate would be welcome, coupled with an end to a decade of policy confusion with incentives – to collaborate or compete – that point in both directions.

A very full inbox awaits our new Prime Minister, Ms Truss. I hope that amongst this myriad of issues, some thought can be given, and some policy decisions taken to support and enhance our world-leading universities for the benefit of students, staff, the economy and local communities.

Alistair Jarvis is Pro Vice Chancellor (Partnerships and Governance) at the University of London.

*An earlier version of this article was published at WonkHE. This version has been updated to reflect the fact that Elizabeth Truss has been confirmed Prime Minister.