What does the Journey to a Million mean for civic and community engagement?

Vanessa Wilson, Chief Executive Officer, University Alliance

Higher Education: past and present

I write this in the week of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. Public discourse in recent days has reflected on the extraordinary changes the world has seen since Her Late Majesty’s accession to the throne in 1952. The higher education sector itself has completely transformed in this time. In 1952 there were just 18 institutions recognised with a university title.

Whilst there were just 18 ‘universities’ in 1952, there were of course a number of great institutions within towns and cities across the UK educating and training local people for the jobs of the time.

University Alliance members, some of the UK’s leading professional and technical (industry-specific) universities, can chart their origins and indeed their curriculum to the industrial revolutions, delivering a highly skilled workforce with and for industry. In turn, this has fuelled the economy both at a local and national level. This role has remained largely unchanged over the last few hundred years with universities recognised as engines of growth. Industry, the government and society owe a great deal to these universities as they reliably produce a highly skilled workforce.

As UCAS’s Journey to a Million points to more people than ever before and from all backgrounds attending university by 2030, we need to ask if it is time for our sector to reconsider our role and evolve further.

The future: skills for a fifth industrial revolution

As we contemplate a fifth industrial revolutioni — one which will push the limits of technology and Artificial Intelligence — a high premium will be placed on distinctive human attributes and skills such as collaboration, communication, critical-thinking and creativity. These are the 4 Cs identified by research with industry conducted by University Alliance member Kingston University.ii Knowing this we need to stop wasting time debating whether too many students are going to university and ask if a million applicants in 2030 is actually enough to meet the skills demands of the future, and how we can ensure that every graduate is skilled for the future. 

Research conducted by the Learning and Work InstituteIII in 2019 suggests even a million students by the end of the decade may leave us with a skills gap, predicting that by 2030 there could be 17.4 million high-skilled jobs with only 14.8 million high-skilled workers — a deficit of 2.5 million people. 

We know that we will need more graduates to fill these jobs. A 2021 McKinsey & Company report defining the skills citizens will need in the future world of work found that “survey participants with a university degree had higher average proficiency scores across 56 distinct elements of talent, suggesting that those with higher levels of education are better prepared for changes in the workplace”.iv

We should not take it for granted, though, that every graduate has the skills needed to thrive in a fast-evolving world of work. That is why Alliance Universities are working closely with industry to give students opportunities to combine the skills they develop throughout their degree with hands-on work experience. Increasingly, a student at an Alliance university will have opportunities to undertake a work placement as part of their degree, work on a project set by employers, or be taught by industry specialists. 

As we Journey to a Million, and hopefully beyond, innovative teaching delivered in partnership with employers should become the goal across all academic disciplines. In doing so, we will ensure our students are ideally equipped for the future.

The future: universities and regional growth in a changing world

An increase in highly skilled graduates is not only good for industry and for the economy, it is essential for delivering growth and prosperity in our regions and communities. We have witnessed a lot of talk about ‘levelling up’ in recent times and some nod towards the role of universities in helping to deliver that. However little to no mention of higher education in the Levelling Up White Paper was a huge opportunity missed. 

With appetite for higher education strong and increasing, the role of universities, their researchers and graduates is evidenced in abundance in the industries they provide for and the communities they serve.
In any thriving metropolis, there will be at least one, probably two and maybe even seven universities. Indeed, the formula for growth has to include a university if you want to inspire aspiration, opportunity, activation and empowerment. 

Across the Alliance membership, our institutions’ impact on place is demonstrable. Alliance universities are the beating heart of their towns, cities, and regions. Look at Coventry University’s involvement in Coventry’s UK City of Culture and their Scarborough Campus,v  opened in 2016, which won plaudits for its transformational impact on this once struggling coastal town. Or consider Anglia Ruskin’s recently opened Peterborough campus, the University of South Wales’ Newport and Treforest campuses and Teesside University’s impact on Middlesbrough. 

Of the 316 local authorities in England, Middlesbrough is ranked as the most income deprived in the country. Teesside University is reversing the fortunes of this once thriving industrial heartland, attracting new industries and investment, delivering skills, employment, and prosperity. Economic analysis completed by New Skills Consulting in 2020 estimated that Teesside University is generating £141 million Gross Valued Added per annum. £99 million of this a direct benefit to the Tees Valley, with a spillover of £28 million in the wider North East. If ever a blueprintvi for regional growth was needed, look no further than Teesside. 

As University Alliance, we have argued in our Vision for Growthvii that universities, research and innovation should be at the heart of strategies and policy for driving prosperity across the UK. In the future, this is what we hope to see, and it is what we will work for.

The future: bigger and better

The most progressive countries in the world have the greatest educational ambitions for their citizens and are prepared to pay for it through their public finances. However, whilst the UK enjoys increasing rates of participation at tertiary level for 18-24-year-olds, spend as a percentage of GDP is still one of the lowest compared to other G7 countries.viii 

I believe the case for higher education expansion in the UK is irrefutable on the grounds of economic growth, human capital, and globalisation. Current and indeed successive governments need to pay heed to and not take for granted a sector that has continuously stepped up, particularly in the hard times such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Now is the time to ensure our world-class higher education system is turbo-boosted to thrive through a radical reduction in regulation and red tape and with a funding formula that unlocks impact in terms of research and development, widening participation and regional growth.  

i Oxford Economics (April 2021), In the 5th Industrial Revolution, creativity must meet technology.

ii Kingston University and YouGov (2022), Future Skills League Table 2022.

iii Duncan Melville and Paul Bivand (2019), Local skills deficits and spare capacity.

iv Dondi, M et al. (2021­), Defining the skills citizens will need in the future world of work.

v House of Lords (2019), The future of seaside towns - Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities.

vi Dorrell, E et al. (2022), The role of Teesside University in Levelling Up.

vii University Alliance (2022), A Vision for Growth.

viii OECD Data (2022), Education resources - Spending on tertiary education.

Vanessa Wilson

Chief Executive Officer, University Alliance

Vanessa became CEO at University Alliance in 2019, after a period as Director of Commercial and Communications at UK Sport.  

Vanessa has also previously held a number of senior strategic communications, campaigns and marketing roles across Whitehall – including at the Department for Education and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2005-2011). 

Since her appointment, Vanessa has grown University Alliance’s membership to 16 of the UK's leading professional and technical universities, and solidified the Alliance’s position as experts in high-level skills development, innovation and university business support.