Reasons to be cheerful on Blue Monday

Dr Tony Strike, University Secretary at the University of Sheffield explores how the HE sector faces up to government changes and Brexit with a positive mindset.

Monday 20 January is officially the most depressing day of the year. By officially, I of course mean: “scientifically” determined as part of a press release by the company Sky Travel. The whole idea of Blue Monday is pseudoscience naturally, but there is something about that combination of short days, bad weather, the receding of the Christmas spirit, the diets and financial prudence of January that make this time of year feel more difficult than most.

Looking at the higher education landscape from the desk of a University Secretary or Registrar, and you might be forgiven for thinking that Blue Monday deserves its name.

The result of the general election has made it clear that the UK will be leaving the EU and the entire sector will have to adapt to a post-Brexit world. A new Conservative majority government could potentially make sweeping changes to the way higher education is funded post-Augar, leaving many institutions in a much more perilous financial position. We have a regulator in the Office for Students emboldened by its new powers that has welcomed the New Year with a swathe of publications, regulatory notices, advice and consultations – it feels like a punishing agenda. With Brexit, funding pressures and regulatory change there is then, a lot to be blue about.

However, before we sink too far into despair, it is worth reflecting that there is a positive way to tell this same story as well. This country’s higher education sector has adapted to big changes before. It is too easy to become a victim, to believe that this is now a sector that has things done to it, rather than being a driver of its own destiny. That our institutions will be diminished. This is the wrong approach and we will be smaller, meaner, and less innovative if we view the world like this.

Firstly, Universities cannot exist separately to their place. In the University of Sheffield’s case, it was founded through a campaign in and funding from the city to bring higher education within the reach of the children of working families. This history defines who we are as an anchor civic institution. The manufacturing history and radical political tradition of our city has had a huge influence on the University throughout its long history. We are acutely aware we are perceived as a remain-backing institution in a city that voted to leave.

The view that universities are unquestionably a good thing, and that children from all backgrounds should aspire to enter higher education, can no longer be taken for granted. But we have an opportunity and an important responsibility to shape a new narrative, demonstrating the value of higher education as a positive force for innovation, prosperity and social mobility.

We can celebrate then that research, skills and regional development were such prominent features of the general election campaign. The early signs are that the new government is seizing on this agenda. The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, for example, brings some of the biggest names in industry to South Yorkshire. We are delivering on the Government’s industrial strategy. With more money for research and development expected, and the continuation of the Strength in Places fund, there will be the resource for universities to make an even bigger impact within their cities and their regions.

Secondly, a new government also means fresh faces in the House of Commons. Building relationships with these new MPs will be crucial. We can work actively to shape a positive narrative about HE, and the role of HEIs in the regions and where we can help the UK Government to deliver its priorities.

At the University of Sheffield, we have decided to be proactive and are engaging our region’s newly elected MPs. We want a two-way dialogue that not only communicates our value and values to parliamentarians and asks how they can support us, but also seeks to support them to make an impact in those policy areas they are interested in. Being helpful and being seen to be helpful will build goodwill and create long-lasting positive working relationships with MPs from across the political spectrum. Our academics are incredibly important to those relationships. Research from our University, for example, is being read in some pretty unlikely places at the heart of Government and we can and should influence where we can.

Thirdly, our existence and purposes as institutions are not defined by our relationship with the newly assertive regulator, as much as it might sometimes feel like it. It’s just a fact that we live in an era of increasing scrutiny. The danger here is that HE is problematised by DfE and OfS rather than being seen as an engine for delivering a programme of change.

But our individual missions and core values – discovering new knowledge, solving the problems presented by the modern world, advancing education through teaching and research excellence and strengthening our local communities – remain the same. Those will not change, regardless of the number of regulatory advice notes crossing the desk and to be complied with. Remaining rooted in our core purposes and values will ensure we act proportionately, using evidence and not letting our responses create a reactive, risk-averse, compliance-only culture.

Like UUK’s excellent work helping us all prepare for Brexit, the new draft CUC Code of Higher Education Governance is another positive demonstration of the power of self-regulation by the sector as the way to set and meet ambitious standards. This is right, as governing bodies are responsible for ensuring the long-term success and sustainability of their institutions.

The challenges we face are themselves the reason for engaging in the enormous opportunities that the next few years will bring. Government policy on research, international students, and skills are all moving in a positive direction. We have a fresh crop of MPs to whom we can demonstrate our value and expertise. With the challenge of Brexit, higher education institutions remain amongst our country’s most important assets, connecting the UK to the world. Sector bodies like UUK, AdvanceHE, CUC and AHUA can act and are acting as catalysts and enablers for institutions with ambition and agency. There are then reasons to be cheerful on Blue Monday.