Higher education: strength in diversity

Speech given at the annual gathering of university leaders at the Universities UK 'Strength in Diversity' conference.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Photo of Greg Clark

It is a great pleasure to be here today, and to join you, the leaders of institutions that are collectively and individually, among the most important, the most exciting and the most proud of our national assets.

It is an extraordinary honour and responsibility to be the Minister responsible for institutions that nurture the lives yet to be written, the ideas yet to be realised and the discoveries yet to be made, that will, nevertheless, define the future.

University certainly changed my life, and from the point at which I arrived in Cambridge from a comprehensive school in Middlesbrough, I’ve never wandered far from education’s embrace, whether in studying for a PhD at LSE, a postgraduate diploma at King’s College, London, tutoring for the OU or, for the last few years, being a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford.

As well as expressing my personal gratitude, the first thing I want to do is thank you for everything you’ve done for our universities over the last year.

It’s invidious to single people out, but I will anyway!

First, I’d like to thank Chris Snowden - not only is Chris a brilliantly effective VC, but he has proved absolutely pivotal to securing investment from around the world in the technology cluster burgeoning at Surrey. We are all grateful that he is devoting his energies at UUK.

And all of us here will want to pay tribute to the shrewd and effective leadership of Nicola Dandridge making sure UUK has been of decisive influence during a tumultuous time for the sector.

I’d also particularly like to thank Alan Langlands for hosting us all today, and also for his absolutely sterling work at HEFCE during a time of transformation – which I’ll talk about in a moment.

And I want to say a big thank you to those vice chancellors who are moving on. Robbins may have created a system of HE, but it’s a system of robustly independent institutions and that means vigorous and far-sighted leadership is required in every one of them.

Let me hold up just a few examples. Next year Eric Thomas will retire as VC of Bristol University after 14 years. He personifies that vigorous and far-sighted leadership – investing over £250 million in buildings and facilities in the past 5 years with plans to double this by 2016. Eric is also doing a great job as our UK International Education Champion. It has been no easy task bringing together the many disparate parts of the education sector in our international education council, formed last year.

Meanwhile the Open University’s Martin Bean is returning to Australia at the end of this year. Martin has made a huge impact in opening up access to education – in the finest tradition of the OU. His readiness to experiment with new technology has brought OU resources to millions of people all around the world – with 66 million downloads of OU materials on ITunes U, 22 million views on YouTube and 33 million visitors to the OU’s free content on OpenLearn.

And Howard Newby, another giant of the HE policy scene, will be retiring from the University of Liverpool next year. He has focused hard on pushing Liverpool as a global university, strengthening links with China, as well as establishing partnerships in Malaysia, Brazil and India.

And the university is now Europe’s largest provider of fully online postgraduate degrees, with over 10,000 students in 160 countries. I am pleased that Sir Howard has such a formidable successor in Janet Beer, the current VC of Oxford Brookes University. Janet, I know has made the student experience a big priority at Oxford Brookes – a vital component of the sector’s work. Both in her own university and in the sector more widely she has also been a champion of equality and diversity.

On A-level results day we were once again reminded that young women are surging ahead in higher education. I’ve been struck, though, at how wide is the gulf between entry to university and participation in the leadership of institutions, and indeed the sector. Only 17% of VCs and 22% of professors are women. I know that everyone recognises the challenge – and also the opportunity – this presents. ‘Strength in Diversity’ is the theme of your conference, and I dare say I am not wrong in detecting an ambition there, as well as a reflection on the current attributes of the sector.

I will do everything I can to support you in driving forward measures that will open up universities to those whose representation does not reflect still their full talent and potential.

I am well aware that, as the new minister for this brief, I am stepping into some very big shoes. Following on from a man known as ‘Two Brains’ was always going to be a little daunting.

David Willetts is a good friend of mine, and I know that you really valued and liked him too. You appreciated his intelligence, his understanding, his fervent belief in the importance of higher education and science – and above all his willingness to be open and accessible and to work closely with you.

I think we should all pay tribute to what David Willetts achieved in introducing our new funding system. Leading for the government he transformed university funding.

The OECD’s annual ‘Education at a Glance’ report, which is out today and gives a useful picture of how we are doing on the global stage, underlines this. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD has described the UK as “the first European country that established a sustainable approach to HE funding.”

This, as I don’t need to remind anyone here, was no small task. Now that the hard work has been done, it’s worth reflecting on how far we have come – and how much better things are now than they would have been had David not grasped the nettle of reform. If applications meet expectations, then the resources available for teaching will rise from £7.9 billion provided in 2011 to 2012 to around £10 billion in 2015 to 2016.

If we hadn’t made these changes you can be sure that the regime you would be operating in as a Vice Chancellor now would be much more difficult. In a climate of economic stringency the alternatives were stark. The 2012 reforms are on track to deliver £3 billion of grant savings per year from 2015 to 2016. If fees had remained close to £3,000 those savings would still need to have been found. What would that have meant? Let’s assume that cuts were spread equally across students and universities. On the student side, that would have meant pressure to cut numbers. Or to avoid this we might have been forced to eliminate the maintenance grant completely. No more grants to help students struggling with their living costs. At the same time, universities would have faced big cuts to the teaching grant but with no corresponding increase in fee income to compensate. This would have meant something like a 20% cut in your total income for undergraduates - a loss of several tens of million pounds for many institutions here.

Instead the new regime has been all about putting students and the value of the experience they receive at the heart of the system, where it ought to be. It’s been about increasing information to inform choice; driving up the quality of higher education; freeing you from the restrictive student number controls and helping students to get their first choice of university.

I wrote my PhD thesis in the Lionel Robbins Building of the LSE. It was a reminder of the enduring power of good policy over the lives of millions of people.

At a time when demand is outstripping supply and the goal of achieving equal participation regardless of background is still far from attained, to have cut the number of students would have been to turn our backs on Robbins’ vision. And to have sounded the retreat on the 50th anniversary of his great report would have been doubly shameful.

To quote the man himself, higher education courses should be available to “all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”. I stand by that principle. And because the new financial regime has put higher education on a more sustainable footing, we are, for the first time, in a position to make the words a reality.

Opponents of our reforms warned that raising fees would put young people – and especially those from poorer backgrounds - from going to university. The good news is that young people are continuing to prove the critics wrong. In England, the current application rate for 18 year olds increased to its highest ever level – nearly 35%. And even more importantly the application rate for 18 year olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England was also at a record high – of 20.7%. The latest data from UCAS shows that more students from disadvantaged backgrounds have now secured places at university than ever before. As of August 29, almost 22,000 18 year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas had been accepted on higher education courses – a rise of 8% This means that the gap between rich and poor in higher education is narrowing.

But we still have some distance to travel. The lazy criticism of our agenda to open up higher education is that we are sending people to university who shouldn’t go. This is the old Kingsley Amis “more will mean worse” argument, and I simply don’t buy it.

Anyone who questions whether expansion is necessary should look at the recent data from HEFCE on university participation by Parliamentary constituency. This reveals some shocking disparities across the UK. In Ruislip 65% of young people go into higher education. But in my home town of Middlesbrough just 26% of young people make it to university. And in Nottingham North only 16% do.

Let me be clear. As long as 4 times as many children get to university from suburban London as from the estates of Nottingham I refuse to believe that the pool of ability is close to being exhausted.

I refuse to believe that there’s something intrinsic about kids from Middlesbrough or Nottingham that means they’re incapable of benefitting from a university education. I know that, because these are the children of the kids I went to school with on Teesside and I remember thinking the same at the time about my classmates when only a handful of them went on to sixth form, let alone university.

The aspiration gap is closing – and at an accelerating rate – but we must, and you must, carry on doing everything we can to close it altogether. Whether through university or apprenticeships, we must ensure that, from the early years upwards, every young person is encouraged to make the most of his or her abilities.

And this is not just about undergraduate education. We know that more and more employers are looking for Masters Degrees when they recruit, and this means that postgraduate education is becoming the new frontier in the battle to widen access. I want to work to find ways of making sure that the opportunity to do postgraduate study is available for those who can benefit from it - to the further benefit of your institutions and the country.

We know employers also value students with work and international experience. Our ‘International education strategy’ recognises that overseas study and work placement as part of a degree offers students the opportunity to experience new cultures, develop language capabilities and to gain broader skills that will make them stand out to employers. We want to see more students gaining international experience and fully support the sector led strategy to increase outward mobility of UK students. I am pleased to see that the Higher Education International Unit is implementing the strategy and working to increase its profile within the sector, address barriers to going overseas and raise student awareness of the benefits.

As part of this I am delighted to announce the launch of the new Go International website, which will bring together information on studying, volunteering and working abroad and will act as a platform for universities and colleges to share best practice. I hope you will encourage your staff and students to make use of this online hub.

I know that students - and their parents worry about the employment market for graduates. The outlook is, in fact, increasingly positive. The latest ‘Destinations of leavers of higher education’ survey, out this summer, found that 88% of all full-time first degree graduates were in employment and/or further study 6 months after graduating. Two employer surveys also suggested a rosier graduate jobs market. The high fliers survey review summer update found graduate vacancies in 2014 were up by nearly 12% compared to last year. And the Association of Graduate Recruiters summer review predicted a 17% increase in graduate vacancies during the 2013 to 2014 hiring season, compared with the previous year.

Going to university offers real returns for the individual. It also offers big returns for the country. In my ministerial portfolio I am retaining the role of Minister for Cities, alongside Higher Education and Science, and the 3 fit very neatly together. Universities are about ideas and research, and they are about education and training. And both of these aspects are increasingly important to economic prospects of all nations. As we fight to put our economy on a more secure footing we will be relying on universities more than ever before. When it comes to ideas and research we know that, across the country, a deepening association between universities and business is incredibly important – from spinning out new companies, to helping existing businesses to innovate and grow. And cities across the UK rely heavily on universities to develop their workforce.

I have seen time and time again in my work to boost growth in our cities that universities are right at the heart of that growth. UUK’s 9 regional impact reports did a wonderful job of spelling this out. In the north eAst for example, you found that for every 100 direct full-time equivalent jobs created inside universities, a further 104 UK jobs would be generated in other industries, of which 78 would be local jobs in the region. This is backed up further by an excellent report by Professor Michael Parkinson, then at Liverpool John Moores University. He examined cities across Europe and found that higher education institutions in the regions do much to lift the economic vitality of their nation. From Munich to Germany, to Tampere in Finland, to right here in Leeds, Michael demonstrates the essential role that universities have played in both the growth of local innovation systems and the development of the skills base. This is why it is so important that all 39 of our Local Enterprise Partnerships have a higher education representative on them – and I am delighted that many of you in this room today sit on your LEP.

And we don’t need to look far for great examples of universities driving growth. As the world shifts away from its dependence on fossil fuels, new multi-billion pound markets are emerging for bio-based products. Just up the road Biovale York, an exciting innovation cluster for biotech, is aiming to capitalise on this market. The government committed up to £8 million to this £49 million project in July as part of our Local Growth Deals for Leeds City Region and York, North Yorkshire and East Riding (YNYER). Biovale brings together industry with world-class researchers in biotech, chemistry and agriculture from the University of York, as well as providing new opportunities for brilliant engineers from Leeds University. I would like to pay tribute in particular to Prof. Bob Cryan, the VC of Huddersfield who sits on the board of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership, and Prof. Colin Mellors, Pro-VC at the University of York, who sits on the board of the North Yorkshire LEP. Both have been tireless in promoting not only higher education but all the private sector elements in their respective growth deals, and continue to champion business and technology development.

Meanwhile at the other end of the country, as Chris knows, the University of Surrey is at the forefront of growth in information and communication technology – and specifically the coming revolution in mobile and internet access, 5G. A key element in the Enterprise M3 growth deal is support for the world’s first dedicated 5G innovation centre at Surrey. This will be a test-bed facility with some fantastic experimental kit that local businesses can also access. and at the heart of exciting developments such as the Internet of Things, smart cities and Future Internet technologies. Surrey should be proud that they have brought together such a strong consortium of industry partners – and secured over £53 million of private investment on top of £5 million from the Enterprise M3 growth deal and £11.6 million from HEFCE Research Partnership Investment Fund (RPIF) and a further £4.9mn from HEFCE Catalyst Fund.

At the end of last year we asked Professor Sir Ian Diamond and UUK to undertake a review into where the higher education sector could go further and become even more efficient and effective across both research and teaching. Ian’s review is looking at important areas such as asset sharing, estates and the HE workforce. In fact there is a great example right here at Leeds University, where the N8 group of universities are collaborating to share a world-leading £3.25 million High Performance Computing facility. Companies including EDF, National Grid, AXA and Johnson and Johnson are also now working with N8 academics to learn how this impressive piece of kit can help their businesses.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Universities UK and Professor Diamond for their hard work. Their final report, due in February 2015, can play an important role in informing decisions at the next Spending Review, where you will want to ensure the story is one of a sector delivering the highest value for students and in research - and as Professor Diamond has said, “scaling the twin peaks of excellence and efficiency”.

I believe Higher Education is in a good place. You are in good financial health overall; the appetite for higher education remains strong and universities are cementing their position as drivers of local growth. But in spite of these many successes, I know that most of you here today will have some concerns about what the future will hold for your universities. I do want to hear more from you about these.

Finally, it seems appropriate to end today on the issue of admissions – as I know this will be at the front of all your minds. I would very much like to congratulate UCAS on the smooth running of what is the busiest ever clearing process this year. I was in Cheltenham on August 14 when many thousands of young people had just torn open their A-level results and I was very impressed with the whole operation. I have talked a lot today about the importance of widening access to higher education. As the 2011 Higher Education White Paper said: “Ultimately, the best way to widen participation is to ensure there are sufficient higher education places available for those qualified.” This is why we are abolishing the cap on aspiration – one of the greatest barriers to social mobility in this country. We will remove the arbitrary cap on student numbers completely in 2015 to 2016. And as you know, this year we have allowed for an extra 30,000 student places in the system to give flexibility both to prospective students and to your institutions. We expected that this would translate in practice to something like 15,000 extra students this year. Early estimates are that the outturn will be plumb in line with expectations, representing a boost to many thousands of young people and an orderly transition to uncapped numbers.

The most popular and successful institutions can choose to grow. It is an important and historic time for this sector.

And I would say this. Whatever the challenges and the debates that will engage us, the high reputation and the success of higher education and research in the UK mean that they are challenges that most other countries around the globe would kill for. In so many respects, UK higher education is the envy of the world.

Let me end as I began, by thanking you for everything you have done during the year past and - from this particular fresher, to you as the leaders of our universities - to say how very much I am looking forward to getting to know you and to give all the help I can in making the future of your institutions a continuing source of pride and achievement for all of us.

Published 10 September 2014