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Professor Jonathan Michie asks, can Government trust universities to deliver?

April 27, 2020

As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, Government should require universities to provide community learning strategies, says Professor Jonathan Michie.

Universities UK has written to Government seeking support to mitigate the huge costs of covid-19:

Will Government respond? Should they? And if so, how?

The UUK submission argues Government should provide support, not least because the university sector could play a key role in what will need to be a major programme of national reconstruction. Indeed, as the above link to the UUK statement indicates, the case is framed explicitly as a package of measures not just to enable the university sector to survive and carry on doing the great job it was doing previously, but rather “to enable universities to play a critical role in rebuilding the nation”.

The UUK paper summarises universities’ collective role and contribution in six points, one of which is “Civic leadership and impact through supporting local communities and businesses, providing services and facilities and driving regeneration of places.”

The UUK paper argues that “universities need investment from government” to, amongst other things, “ensure that universities are able to play a central role in the UK’s economic and social recovery following the crisis”.

This isn’t the first time the nation has faced the existential question of how to rebuild socially and economically following national trauma. During World War One, Prime Minister Lloyd George established the Ministry of Reconstruction for precisely this purpose. While the catch-phrase remembered by history is “homes fit for heroes”, arguably the greatest contribution made by the Ministry of Reconstruction was through the Final Report published in 1919 by its Committee on Adult Education. This stressed three needs for what today would be referred to as adult education and lifelong learning: firstly, the need for an educated population to be able to engage in national discussions around the great issues and challenges facing society; secondly, because of the emergence of new technologies making inadequate ‘training’ in today’s skills, when what was needed was continuing education to create the capacity and capabilities within the workforce to engage in as yet unknown technologies; and thirdly with the extension of the electorate, the importance of education to enable electors to think critically and weigh evidence so as to distinguish from on the one hand genuine political arguments from on the other hand – in the words of the 1919 Report – demagoguery.

The 1919 Report thus urged all universities to establish departments for continuing education, to provide – in collaboration with local authorities and the WEA – community and adult education. Over time, every university responded positively, leading in the 1960s and 1970s to the world-leading Open University.

There is no doubt, then, that the university sector did respond positively, and to good effect. However, over the past twenty years, many universities have backslid, cutting back on community education and closing departments for continuing education. How can Government trust them now, to start once again delivering on this historic agenda?

That question was posed by a Commission established to produce a follow-on to the 1919 Report, published exactly 100 years later, in November 2019 – available free of charge from Their answer was two-fold.

Firstly, the provision of adult, community and lifelong learning should be a requirement of each and all universities. This should once again be something a university must to. Not just in return for funding, but as a condition for using the title of ‘university’, which is a protected term in law.

And more importantly, the Government should establish a national strategy for adult education and lifelong learning, delivered regionally and locally by Adult Education Partnerships between universities and colleges, local authorities, employers and others.

This would enable Government to ensure the commitments being offered in return for funding would be delivered. It would also enable Government to deliver on its manifesto commitments to firstly level-up communities, secondly create a “right to retrain”, and thirdly to “strengthen universities and colleges’ civic role” – for which the Manifesto commitment was to “invest in local adult education and require the Office for Students to look at universities’ success in increasing access across all ages, not just young people entering full-time undergraduate degrees”.

The University Association of Lifelong Learning has already urged its members to respond, and the University of Nottingham has re-established adult education provision, initially online; Oxford is making available regularly updated free-of-charge educational resources:

There is now an opportunity for Government to ensure their manifesto pledges are implemented by and with the support of universities, by making that a condition for providing the financial support that the sector undoubtedly needs.

Professor Jonathan Michie

This article was first published in the Times Higher Education online on 27 April 2020: