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Time of resolve

Leading higher education figures make new year’s resolutions for themselves and others

In 2022, the higher education sector faced the pandemic fallout, lecturers’ strikes and new demands around student outcomes. This year is looking even more challenging. We asked a selection of those who will be making key decisions affecting universities over the coming year what resolutions should be in place for 2023.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK:

“My personal resolution is to fight the drag of all the frankly rather challenging things on higher education policy and stay focused on what we need to make this great university system of ours flourish in the future. For me, that will mean gripping the nettle of the financial model in which, in all four nations of the UK, universities make a loss on teaching and an even bigger one on research. We need to fix that, and it has to start with establishing a shared understanding of the dimensions of the challenge. I’d like us to be able to curate the conversation in a way that brings in multiple perspectives from all those who need our universities to deliver for the country.

“If I could foist one tiny resolution on others, it would be for our government and the European Commission to stop playing politics with research and reach an agreement on the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. I’d love not to be talking about this in 2024!”

Jess Cole, director of policy at the Russell Group:

“We would like to see the government and the Office for Students make a resolution to minimise the regulatory burden on universities, so they can be freed up to focus on delivering a high-quality education and supporting the skills, research and innovation that underpin growth. Effective regulation is vital to protect a world-class student experience and education, but universities are seeing an ever-growing volume of resource-intensive requests, along with changes to key regulatory strategies mid-cycle and time-pressured consultation windows.

“We hope to work with the government and the OfS in the new year to remove unnecessary red tape and help create a truly risk-based, proportionate approach. Ultimately this will help our world-leading universities target their resources on the things that really matter: delivering impact, creating opportunity, improving people’s lives, advancing knowledge, addressing global challenges such as climate change, and stimulating enterprise and culture.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union:

“As we head into a new year, vice-chancellors have a chance to finally demonstrate that they care about the staff who run universities, through meaningful negotiations and improved offers on pay, casualisation and pensions.

“Vice-chancellors earn eye-watering salaries and enjoy wealth beyond the wildest dreams of the staff they are meant to lead. I want them to think about those they deny secure contracts to, those who cannot make ends meet because of low pay and those now facing financial insecurity in retirement.

“If they want it enough, vice-chancellors can make 2023 the year our sector looks to the future and puts regular industrial strife behind it.”

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association:

“Across the sector, so many people need to make a resolution to try to set aside differences and address the cost-of-living pressures facing higher education. Perhaps the sector’s trade union leaders will make a resolution to work with employers as we try to bring forward the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff 2023-24 pay negotiations.

“That resolution could include a focus to negotiate with employers who are doing their best to address the cost-of-living pressures facing staff, while refraining from attempts to take industrial action during this period. Despite the stretched finances of many higher education institutions, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association’s members have agreed to bring forward the next pay round with the possibility of an interim pay rise this winter to help cushion staff against the difficult daily costs. Ucea wants to work with unions to achieve this, but a new year’s resolution from our union colleagues to avoid unnecessary disruption for students and other members of staff would be very welcome.”

Felicity Mitchell, independent adjudicator, and Ben Elger, chief executive, at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator:

“Over the last few years, we have seen students, their representative bodies and providers face enormous challenges. We found that when they came together to look for solutions, those challenges were often managed more effectively. Although the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is behind us, there are many other significant—sometimes daunting—issues facing students and those who support them. Providers are trying to support students who are dealing with acute financial pressures and those with mental health difficulties and other personal challenges. Everyone is contending with disruption caused by wider industrial action.

“It feels more important than ever this year to find ways to work with students on these difficult and potentially divisive issues by inviting students and student representative bodies to contribute to discussions about how to tackle them, listening to their concerns and finding ways to engage with those students whose voices might be lost.”

Graeme Atherton, head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London and director of the National Education Opportunities Network:

“I would like to see the Office for Students make a resolution to be as flexible as possible in implementing its latest new approach to access and participation plans this summer and to commit to not implementing any more changes for the next four years.

“There is no doubt that the OfS shares a genuine commitment to widening access, but the requirement on all providers to produce new access and participation plans this year and the proposed equality of opportunity risk register will have to be handled very carefully if these are to add value rather than distracting from real work with learners. This means understanding that all providers are different and will not be able to produce the same kind of plan, and offering clear guidance and support to enable them to meet a very challenging timetable.”

Vicki Stott, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency:

“My resolutions are that we as a sector get better at showcasing the high-quality provision in UK institutions that is achieved through providers’ individual and collective commitments to quality assurance and enhancement, and that we successfully communicate that story to policymakers and international partners to demonstrate that the UK degree remains one of the most respected in the world. Quality is, after all, at the heart of our deserved international reputation.”

Vikki Goddard, higher education consultant and chair of the Association of University Administrators:

“I would really love to see a renewed commitment to focusing on people. We have seen incredible levels of commitment and partnership over the past few years—particularly during the pandemic, when teams across academic and professional services came together to enable students to continue to learn and universities to continue to operate. Unfortunately, we have also seen the toll that this has taken on people’s wellbeing and their ability to shake off that impact over a protracted period. Having moved from a senior role in a large university to working with a number of very different institutions in the past year, what is common is the burnout people are dealing with, and this is not sustainable.

“My resolution, then, is that we change the rules of engagement so that we really put people at the centre. This would mean changes to industrial relations, to how academic and professional services interact and to how we all interact with students. And critically, we need to do this in a way that embeds diversity and is inclusive and kind.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute:

“I think the sector should resolve to be resolutely focused on the political cycle. The next election is not so long away in political terms, even if it does not happen until autumn 2024. So we need to resolve to deepen our engagement with policymakers of all political persuasions, with a view to ensuring a better understanding of universities among Conservative politicians and helping to fill in the policy vacuum within the Labour Party.

“On campus, it would be good to see managers and staff resolving to improve the state of higher education ‘industrial relations’. The current wave of strikes is not delivering benefits for strikers, students or institutions.

“I also think we should all resolve to continue to protect the basic tenets of academic life—such as independence, autonomy, high-quality teaching, a good all-round student experience and furthering knowledge through research—from those that seek to attack them at home and abroad.”