Anthony Seldon (The Telegraph, January 2nd, 2018)
Our universities, long considered among our most admired institutions in Britain, have experienced their worst year in living memory. Truly, an annus horribilis. A string of negative stories ricocheted across the media, mis-selling degrees, indifferent teaching, student suicides, poor student behaviour pointing to inadequate pastoral care, and failures to stand up for free speech. The public was rightly baffled.
No subject so inflamed them as much as vice-chancellor (VC) pay. Roland Rudd, Head of PR firm Finsbury, says it all could have been avoided: “I really think VCs fail to understand public concern. You can’t be seen to be ratcheting up top level pay and fees without clear evidence of improvement”.
The standing of universities at home and abroad has suffered as a result of the attack. For Nick Hillman, head of the influential Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), it has been “the worst year in the last ten or more. Self-confidence has been shaken.” When the row over VC pay broke in the early summer at the Festival of Higher Education, the sector could have come forward to acknowledge public concern and say it was setting up an inquiry to restore confidence.
Strong leadership which embraces innovation and the new world of HE will ensure that 2018 is a much better year. But to do this, leadership of individual universities, as well as at the centre, must continue to change their outlook. For far too long, universities and those who worked in them have believed they possessed a divine right to continue as they were. Not even Margaret Thatcher dared to tackle the hallowed status quo.
The reaction to the announcement by Jo Johnson two weeks ago that there might be more two-year degrees shows how much universities have still to change to foreground the consumer rather than just the producer interest. My own university, Buckingham, has championed two-year degrees for the last 40 years, and the fact that it is consistently top of the tables on teaching quality shows that two-year degrees are emphatically not the inferior product some have implied. University leadership equally needs to do much more to embrace its responsibilities for student mental health, safeguarding free speech, seeing Brexit as a positive opportunity and for driving up teaching quality.
The poor year for universities will have been worth the pain if the sector learns the lessons. We have magnificent universities, and their vitality will never be more needed as we enter the new economic era that is dawning.
Sir Anthony Seldon is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham