Universities are facing an array of challenges as a result of the two key policy developments affecting the Higher Education sector in 2016 – the vote in June to leave the European Union and the resultant change of Prime Minister and cabinet, and the passing through Parliament of the Higher Education Bill. Despite the new Chancellor’s guarantee of continued research and development funding after the UK leaves the EU, potential changes to EU and International student status could mean a recruitment crisis on the horizon, denying universities vital income from fees. Amber Rudd’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference suggested that the government will further limit international students coming to the UK, a battle that the HE sector seems to have lost. Even if the government wasn’t committed to reducing international student numbers, initial evidence suggests that the Brexit vote will deter a significant number of international students from coming to the UK to study.
Simultaneously, the Higher Education Bill could adversely affect universities’ ability to recruit domestically. The government has announced it will implement a new ratings system for institutions, marking them as Gold, Silver or, for universities falling ‘significantly below’ benchmark standards, bronze. We don’t know how this will impact domestic recruitment, but it is not difficult to imagine an 18 year old choosing to begin full-time work rather than attend a university ranked below benchmark standards. More than ever, universities need to demonstrate that they can provide a holistic experience for students, beyond their degrees, that will equip them with the skills they need to gain and thrive in employment upon graduation.
The Brexit vote also brings into question the public profile of universities, including their ability to influence and engage with the communities they are based in. Representatives from across the sector were extremely vocal in their support for a ‘Remain’ vote, emphasising the importance of the EU to their research and funding. Traditional university cities like Oxford and Cambridge saw some of the strongest Remain votes, but many other university towns and cities returned a Leave vote. Notably Sheffield (c.60,000 students) and Birmingham (c.63,000) saw narrow votes for Leave. This suggests a lack of recognition of the important role universities can and do play in the local community and economy. Universities need to re-engage with their civic origins and bridge divides that may have developed in the local area.
Investing in quality social action provision, then putting it at the heart of both their student experience offer and community outreach strategy, can provide universities with a solution. Young people are passionate about tackling social and environmental issues in their communities. Recent research shows that today’s teenagers are more engaged in social issues than ever before and this interest continues into adulthood. Potential students are eager to get involved in their local community and they increasingly want to study at a university that provides them with the opportunity to do so, whilst developing transferrable skills that will help them to get a job. There is now a wealth of evidence linking social action and employability. A recent CIPD report found that 67% of employers noted that entry level candidates with voluntary experience demonstrated greater employability skills and 51% of graduates under 30 in paid work said volunteering helped them to secure employment.
Investing in social action can also yield results across a range of other university priorities. Giving students the opportunity to take part in and lead activities in their community in the service of others can also have a positive impact on student satisfaction and wellbeing. Of the 2,192 students who took part in a Student Hubs programme in 2015-16, 97% reported that it had improved their experience of university. This has a knock on effect on retention: at Kingston University, students who took part in our social action programmes were 17% more likely to progress than those who didn’t. Making social action a core part of their student experience offer can help universities to more effectively recruit and retain students, as well as equipping them with key employability skills.
Quality social action also has a demonstrable impact in the local community, meaning that investment in social action can improve the public perception of a university. Through social action programmes, communities are able to engage with young people who have the time, energy and skills to make a positive impact in the local area. At the same time, student volunteers act as positive representatives of their university, demonstrating the commitment the institution has to its civic responsibilities. Senior leaders should take inspiration from universities across the sector who are embracing their civic role. The Universities of Nottingham, Manchester and Winchester all emphasise commitment to their civic responsibilities in their strategies and match this with investment on the ground.
Changing perceptions of the role universities play as recruiters, consumers and service providers in the local economy is a challenge that goes beyond investing in social action. However, this investment should be a core part of a larger strategy to break down barriers between institutions and communities. Social action can also help to overcome another challenge – the need for universities to demonstrate value for money and market their ‘student experience’, which has accelerated in the past few months and will only continue to do so. Although the Higher Education sector is set for an uncertain few years, as the Higher Education Bill is implemented and the manner in which the UK will leave the EU becomes clearer, high quality social action provision is one way to meet the needs of students, universities and communities.
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