UPP Foundation Bulletin 29.07.2021

UPP Foundation Bulletin 29.07.2021

Hello and welcome to the second UPP Foundation bulletin.

In 1960, Kingsley Amis criticised “the pit of ignorance and incapacity into which British education has sunk since the war”, arguing that “more will mean worse.”

The history of higher education in England is littered with these regular bouts of introspection. This is not surprising. Universities play a significant role in shaping our society and economy – and have done for decades, if not centuries. Institutions that mould who we are as people inevitably face scrutiny and challenge.

Today, the debate about the role of universities in society is, again, hotly contested, with signs that parts of government and Whitehall are more sceptical of universities than they have been for decades.

To change this perception and build a stronger case to government (of any political hue) we need to broaden our sector’s appeal to the people who matter to them – the public. That is why we worked with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), supported by Public First (who conducted the polling), to publish a comprehensive report detailing public attitudes to higher education in England.

Our hope is that the report is used as a catalyst for deep discussions within universities and the wider sector on how to persuade the public of the value of higher education in England and beyond. While there is much to be optimistic about in the findings – particularly the high demand for a university education – what is striking is the high level of neutrality towards universities. History shows we will always face some scrutiny and challenge but it is vital we grow public support in the years ahead, as that's the best defence against a challenging political and policy environment.

In this edition we also have the latest from the Student Futures Commission, which held its second oral evidence session on wellbeing and the wider student experience earlier in the month. We also share insights from elsewhere, including the brilliant news that 32 universities have joined our partners Student Minds' University Mental Health Charter.

Do please forward our bulletin to your friends and colleagues (and get them to sign up!). Feedback is always welcome - email us at info@upp-foundation.org

Have a happy Thursday.

Richard Brabner, Director, UPP Foundation

Public Attitudes to Higher Education

Seven Lessons from the UPP Foundation & HEPI Polling Report

Last week, the UPP Foundation and HEPI published a major new report on public attitudes to higher education. The survey was conducted in February and asked over 2,000 adults in England about universities as institutions, the value of degrees and campus culture.

The report received a huge amount of national coverage, including The Times, The I Paper, Independent, and Daily Telegraph. This tended to focus on the finding that public support for changes to 'decolonise' the curriculum depend on how they are framed and presented.

There is a huge amount of rich data in this report and we hope you find the results as fascinating as we do. But given the extensive nature of the survey there are a number of other results that remain a little under the radar. So with Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, we penned a blog on seven other key points which emerged from the polling. In summary we found that:

1. Four times as many people regard universities’ impact as positive than those who see it is as negative but there are high levels of neutrality towards universities throughout the survey.
2. Support for higher education is split between class, age and vote - with working-class, older and Leave/Conservative voters less supportive.
3. Those who are more negative about universities tend to have had less contact with them, so the polling underlines the importance of engagement, particularly with those traditionally less likely to attend university for study.
4. When people are thinking about themselves or their families, they are more positive about degrees than when they are thinking about participation generally.
5. The public are inconsistent about the purpose of degrees. A majority of the public think that 'studying topics which do not clearly link to a profession is a waste of time' AND 'enjoying a subject is good enough reason to do it'.
6. Research is seen as the thing universities are most important for, and a majority of the public respond strongly to national impact.
7. Via a segmentation analysis we find six distinct opinion groups in the country and a large minority which are disengaged.

Student Futures Commission

“We’re going to have a group of students, both new and returning, coming to university in September, who have spent the majority of their studies in extreme uncertainty”
Mhari Underwood, The Student Room

Student Experience and Wellbeing Evidence Sessions

We recently held our second oral evidence session which investigated the student experience, covering mental health and student wellbeing. The Commission sensed that belonging – with an emphasis on social connections and lived experience – sits front of mind when exploring the student experience, and wanted to look further at how this has been disrupted by the pandemic, and how we can improve it next year.

Commissioners questioned key experts over two separate sessions; the first focused on wellbeing and student support, with the second on the wider student experience and engagement. Witnesses said that:

· It was clear that many students felt that they had lost a sense of control over their university experiences. Mhairi Underwood, Head of Student Voice and Diversity at the Student Room said that less than half of current students they surveyed felt like they had a support network they could reach out to or that they knew how to connect with their classmates.
· Everyone is going to need help with an ‘induction’ next year. Many second year students currently only have a little more experience of ‘on campus’ life than the incoming first years. This ties in with the recent research done by the Brilliant Club for the Commission on the need for a ‘long and skinny’ induction model – and the need to extend activities for much more than a week or two at the beginning of term.
· A whole university approach to student mental health and wellbeing is vital to getting the support right. As Dominic Smithies, Student Voice and Equality Lead from Student Minds noted, many issues around wellbeing stem from anxieties about other practical and structural parts of a student’s experience.
· Encouraging participation in campus life is a way to give students back a sense of agency. Dr Camille Kandiko Howson, Associate Professor Education at Imperial College London, highlighted the important role that departmental student wellbeing officers have played in connecting students to resources and support.
· As the country starts to build back after the pandemic, universities and students will have a key role to play in this. There was a clear appetite from the witnesses to embed engagement into curriculum delivery. Professor Jonathan Grant outlined the role service-led learning played across the curriculum at KCL, ensuring that all students had the opportunity to test out content learned in the classroom by applying it in the community.
· This activity can also clearly help students to build the skills they need for future careers, particularly if they have struggled to do this via internships or work experience. Hattie Tollerson, SU President at London South Bank University, outlined the success of LSBU Students’ Union in re-tooling student societies to focus on professional skills.

Professor Juliet Foster: “It’s about getting this cohort involved in what the world will become”

Professor Juliet Foster, Dean of Education King's College London and Student Futures Commissioner, reflects on the key themes to emerge from the session. Read the full transcripts from the sessions (Part One: Student Support and Wellbeing and Part Two: Student Experience and Engagement) or catch up on our YouTube channel

Articles from the Commission

· Students' interests in a shared recovery - Hattie Tollerson, outgoing SU President at London South Bank University, and Ben Vulliamy, Chief Executive of University of York Students’ Union, reflect on the evidence they shared with the Student Futures Commission
· Let’s seize this opportunity to break down barriers faced by disadvantaged students - Rae Tooth, Chief Executive of Villiers Park, argues that the pandemic presents an opportunity to build a system of higher education that works for disadvantaged learners
· Case Study: 100 days of discovery - Rachael Collins, Student Success Manager at the University of Liverpool outlines their programme for the first 100 days of a Liverpool education
· How can we facilitate the student transition to university post-Covid? - Research led by the Brilliant Club for the Commission discuss some of the key issues related to transition, and how to support students with both academic and non-academic challenges.

What we've been reading elsewhere

It is really good to see an initial 32 universities sign up to Student Minds' University Mental Health Charter programme. Published in 2019, the Charter Framework provides a set of evidence-informed principles to support universities across the UK in making mental health a university-wide priority. The Charter Programme brings together universities committed to working towards these principles to share practice and create cultural change within their institution. As the initial funder of the Charter we are really pleased to see the impact it is having, and strongly recommend other universities who are considering the programme to go for it. The team at Student Minds are a pleasure to work with, and we'd be delighted to link our sector contacts up with them.

Sheffield Hallam University - host of the Civic University Network founded by the UPP Foundation - have just published their Civic University Agreement. Their Agreement identifies four priority areas for their civic role: the economy and jobs, education and skills, health and wellbeing, and community and regeneration. It is great to see the CUA endorsed by Dan Jarvis MBE, the Mayor of South Yorkshire, alongside a range of leaders from local government, the NHS and further education. Several universities have now published their CUA, including the joint University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University Universities for Nottingham Agreement published last year. Let us know when your university publishes its CUA and we will share with our network!

Mark Cover from dataHE has written an important piece for Wonkhe which shows the supply-demand balance clearly shifting against applicants, with a reduction in offer rates and applicant choice for the first time since 2012. With the anticipated rise in demand in the 2020s he says "these patterns could well be a foretaste of a much less favourable world for applicants, and one where it gets harder for universities to increase access for underrepresented groups". Cover warns that "pressure on places can only make improving access harder". This is something we - and I'm sure the entire higher education community - will be watching closely.

With the Olympics now underway it would be remiss not to link to research from the States which debunks myths around student athletes not benefiting from participating in sport. On average, benefits include school graduation, access to university, post-university employment, and earnings - there is also a strong social mobility premium for disadvantaged and minority students. Given the huge differences in our systems in relation to sport there may not be much crossover here. But as someone who still dreams of scoring a hundred in the Ashes (it is never too late...) I found it compelling...