The case for investing in Higher Education in 2020/21

The COVID-19 crisis, according to the Bank of England, is leading to the biggest decline in economic output in modern times. In such a situation, just about every group in society will be calling to the government for help. The early signs are that the UK government is not especially receptive to calls from the HE sector for support. Here are some reasons why that might be a mistake.

First, Higher Education has a clear economic multiplier. Estimations of the size of this vary, but there seems to be a general consensus that every job in HE creates another job somewhere else in the economy, and that every pound spent on HE generates an additional £1.50 in output. So irrespective of your feelings about HE, it’s a good investment to spend money on it.

Second, it seems inevitable that such a decline in economic output is going to lead to a loss in jobs in the economy as a whole. In such a time, we have a choice of paying people unemployment benefit before they have had a chance to start their careers, or asking whether we would be better served by giving them better access to Higher Education instead. The second option means a more highly-educated workforce, as well as shielding people from events that were entirely outside of their control.

Third, if there is one thing COVID-19 has revealed to us, it is the importance of having highly-skilled and trained people in our public life. Although as a society we have lost a lot of the faith in experts we once had, we need them. We need them to be engaged in research to confront the global challenges we face. We need them to organise the delivery of protective equipment for our NHS. But we also need an informed citizenry which is able to engage with public debate and hold our governments to account. The quality of public debate around COVID-19 has not been all should have been. If our public leaders have fallen short, so often has our media’s response. Democratic life depends on strong engagement, a free and ethical press, and our political representatives being held to account. I fear we have not really seen this.

So there are good reasons for investing in Higher Education, even, and perhaps especially, at a time of crisis. However, HE needs to do some hard thinking as well.

It’s clear that many sections of our society don’t regard much of HE in strong regard. Some prominent commentators, via social media, have been highlighting examples of what they regard as academic irresponsibility and waste during the crisis. It’s clear to me that HE has to make a case for investment and relevance, but also that it might have to undergo significant change.

We need to do better in terms of making our teaching more accessible and more flexible. The full-time, students-attend-in-person model is still our default position as a continuity of school and college, but we need to show we can do more in other forms and formats. COVID has seen a significant expansion of online delivery (which raises its own problems in terms of what we are now calling digital inclusion), but has shown we can do things differently. We need to look at what we can learn from the last weeks, from more flexible programmes we already have, as well as what institutions such as the Open University can teach us. We need to offer our students more flexible and more accessible learning.

It is also clear that, because of the hostility shown to HE, it still has a case to make about its relevance and importance. In the UK, the ‘impact’ agenda has forced HE to think about how it can demonstrate relevance, and I’m proud that my own institution is well inside the top 100 of Universities worldwide in generating such impact. However, we need to make doubly sure that everything we do can find relevance in the world we work live in. The impact agenda is only one part of this – we all need to do more in engaging in the democratic process and showing the relevance of our work.

In sum then, investing in Universities is good for the economy, crucial in terms of investing in people at a time of economic and social crisis, and central to improving the functioning of our democracy. Universities have shown they can change already, but need to do more in terms of making our teaching more flexible and accessible, as well as showing the social good they generate. They are a central part of dealing not only with COVID-19 now, but also the social and economic consequences that are still to come.

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