With fewer than 100 days until the nation goes to the polls, public affairs professionals (call us campaigners, political strategists, lobbyists if you will) in private and public sector organisations across the country will be making their final bid to see their priorities enshrined in the parties’ manifestos.
But what do MPs – and those who hope to win a seat in the Commons come 8 May – want to hear about higher education? And perhaps more importantly, what do they think about the university sector?
Universities UK is unveiling research today, carried out by ComRes, which asked current and future MPs which university issues matter most to them. The results will help those of us with responsibility for parliamentary affairs to understand where we could do more to inform, engage or even challenge the views of MPs.
We asked them which areas of higher education they wanted to hear about. From the responses, it was clear that it is the external facing work of universities: their contribution to the economy, to innovation, and to producing the highly skilled workforce of the future, matters most.
MPs said they would be most interested in hearing from UK universities about their engagement with business and enterprise (43%), followed by the employability of graduates (42%). Future MPs said they would be most interested in hearing from UK universities about their activities relating to widening participation and improving social mobility, and about the employability of graduates (48% for both).
Our universities provide teaching and learning for some 2.5 million students a year – and yet MPs and future MPs have only marginal interest in this topic – just 14% of MPs and 16% of future MPs said they were interested in hearing about it. The numbers interested in hearing about immigration – a hot topic for universities ahead of the election – was also relatively low (16% and 13% respectively). Is this a sign that they feel they’ve heard the sector’s position on this enough?
How can we explain these results? We don’t know what prompted respondents to answer as they did, but we can make some assumptions based on political priorities and rhetoric. One reading is that politicians recognise that universities, which contribute over £79 billion to the UK economy annually, are important to the future success of the UK whether this is supporting business and enterprise, or providing graduates with the skills organisations need.
One reading of this result is that the vast majority of MPs and future MPs have some personal experience of university – as a graduate themselves, with family members currently studying at a university somewhere in the UK, or as a former academic or administrator in the higher education sector.
The second question asked was what they thought the university sector was good at doing. The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) showed that overall research quality has increased across the UK, highlighting the research strength we have across all universities. The poll indicates that three-quarters of politicians recognise the quality of our research output and acknowledge that we compete with other international HE sectors.
But focusing on the areas where we could do better, just a quarter of MPs say that UK universities perform well at engaging with MPs and other policy-makers, and just 13% of future MPs say the same. This indicates that UK universities could do more to engage with MPs in the new parliament to ensure that academic research influences policy.
Another area where we can do more to inform and to dispel misconceptions is about how efficiently universities use their funding: 53% of MPs and 54% of future MPs were neutral on this subject, suggesting there is a large group which would welcome greater transparency. This is an area where universities have undertaken a lot of work over the last decade, and UUK will be publishing a review of efficiency and effectiveness in February 2015, which builds upon work led by Professor Sir Ian Diamond in 2011.
Universities continue to deliver high-quality research, teaching and facilities whilst managing severe cuts to capital funding; long-term underinvestment in the science and research base (relative to other OECD economies); and managing the transition to a new, more market-driven system. The only way in which universities have been able to continue to invest in their infrastructure, and to deliver the year-on-year improvements to student satisfaction, has been by working more efficiently. Now we need make sure our politicians hear about this.