To be involved in comms in Higher Education now demands being under the political spotlight. Here is why.
by Julie Waddicor
Anyone with even a passing interest in either the media or Higher Education will have noticed its profile in the news recently. It’s an area of interest to students, to those with children in education and, of course, it was an issue during the general election. But why is the sector still gaining so many headlines - currently around two or three a week - this far past the events of June? This focus is causing a great deal of consternation to many working in the sector who aren’t as used to media scrutiny as those in local authorities or the NHS have become.
As a relative newcomer to the world of Higher Education - or HE - having spent many years under the public gaze in local authorities I have some thoughts on why we currently have such a high profile. To my mind there are three main drivers:
The university sector nailed its colours very firmly to the Remain side, and understandably so. Higher Education is traditionally more liberal and has a strong reliance on both staff and students from abroad to provide the best academic quality and keep the wheels on financially (international students contribute significantly to many university’s books).
At a time of such instability over Brexit, a respected sector that is making a lot of noise could give a galvanising focus to those who voted Remain and sway those who weren’t (or aren’t now) staunchly in the Leave camp. The risk of that during protracted and difficult negotiations is obvious and for those pursuing Brexit, that risk is too great.
Questioning universities about easy targets like Vice-Chancellors’ pay (which could easily turn into the new ‘fat cats’ argument) and sensitive areas like the value for money that students receive dampens some of the fire, turns attention inwards and spawns a fair bit of naval gazing. People who are soul searching under a spotlight rarely have the energy to shout as loudly, making the path smoother for others.
The push for transformation
Legally universities are still within the public sector, despite their model of funding being completely different. Higher Education is the only area of that wider sector that hasn’t had transformation forced upon it as yet through political or financial means. Consider for a moment the upheaval over the last ten years in public authorities, the NHS and further education.
There is absolutely a need for change in the sector and for students to receive a really good education for the money they pay. While political change is coming – through the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Office for Students – it will take time and it can’t be exacerbated by radical changes in central funding as universities receive a high proportion of their income directly from students. Turning the media spotlight on Higher Education is a good way to increase the pressure for quicker transformation.
Labour aligned itself particularly closely with students during the election, and the commitments given by the Labour party during campaigning are now proving to be fertile ground for traditional political manoeuvres. The sector as a whole is a pawn here and just has to ride the storm. Combined with the above however, it makes for a particularly rough ride.
It’s unlikely that the focus on universities will die away in the foreseeable future given what is at stake. We can expect more focus on pay, pension contributions, what students receive for their money and the quality of the service provided. It’s not a comfortable place for many in Higher Education, but it’s something that others in the public sector have faced for many years.
The challenge is to stay focused, motivated and transform ourselves and what we do to not only bear the gaze of the spotlight, but to positively revel in it. With the will to change, a focus on our customers and confidence in our sector, we could shine.
Julie Waddicor is head of student experience and engagement at the University of Salford
Picture credit: National Library of Ireland.