Improving Public Opinion of Universities

Improving Public Opinion of Universities

Published July 1992


This document focuses on advantages that the university system can gain by better public relations. In §l we note current shortcomings and emphasise the need for convincing publicity about both the particulars and the overall national importance of higher education. In §2 the characteristics of university teaching and research are reviewed, together with requirements for the maintenance of quality. Public attitudes towards universities in the U.K. are appraised in §3, where we acknowledge evidence of recent improvement but also draw attention to major misconceptions still needing to be overcome. Finally, in §4, we list possible ways to enhance public awareness of what universities achieve.

1. Introduction

Universities make a vital contribution to the wealth and health of the nation. All political parties canvass the importance of investment in education, rightly giving priority to primary and secondary education but also recognising higher education as a cornerstone of national progress.

The British higher-education system is currently undergoing significant changes, directed towards unification and expanded access, and the NCUP is broadly sympathetic with the aims in view. But we are concerned about the effectiveness of the innovations, beyond mere gains in financial efficiency. The quality of British universities is falling at present, and without a major increase of financial support will fall further as the system is enlarged.

Particular reasons for our concern include:

  • the requirement to enrol more students without a commensurate increase in support for infrastructure and running costs;
  • the continual changes taking place which hinder short-term planning and frustrate long-term planning;
  • the rising costs of facilities for research; and
  • the paucity of meaningful dialogue between the Government and public on the one hand and university administrators, academic staff and students on the other.

The NCUP recognises that the universities themselves are partly to blame for this unsatisfactory situation, for they have largely failed to convince the public and Government that maintenance of quality in the higher-education system is crucial to the future prosperity of our country. It is not yet accepted generally that, even with radical changes in teaching practices and with improved productivity, universities remain in urgent need of long-term financial investment.

To widen understanding of this need, universities will have to advertise their services to the nation more convincingly than before. Misconceptions about the work of universities are still widespread among the general public. The NCUP therefore advocates cogent simple statements of the main facts about the contemporary role of universities: what benefits they provide to individual students and to society; how they operate and why; what resources their staff need to fulfil essential responsibilities; and how they help sustain Britain’s international competitiveness. In our view, as we welcome the redesignation of polytechnics as universities, it is time to dispel some of the myths, to re-emphasise the ethos and criteria of university teaching and research, and to explain what is actually happening in most British universities today.

2. What Universities do

Virtually all British universities are public institutions in which the Government invests funds. It is widely acknowledged that this funding is inadequate. Universities are urged to spend more time on income generation with the inevitable result that they have correspondingly less time for their primary duties as places of education and scholarship. Nevertheless, insofar as universities receive money via Government funding, academics are accountable to the tax-payer, and the tax-payer has a right to accurate information about their aims and achievements. It is easy to talk about the aspirations of universities to train young people in such ways that they may achieve better-paid jobs, less easy to talk about the wider values of universities without risking pomposity. The harder task of publicization is nevertheless essential to propagate understanding of universities’ total importance to the nation.

To counteract the anti-intellectual trait still characterising public attitudes in the UK, especially in England, it deserves continual emphasis that universities are bastions of culture and guardians of fundamental rights enjoyed by everybody in a civilised society. They champion free speech and uphold freedom of inquiry in all its forms. They are the mainstay of national strength in both the sciences and the arts. Most basic research in the UK is undertaken by universities.

In a limited perspective universities may be seen as knowledge factories. But no body of knowledge is static, not even that relating to “dead” languages, and therefore no university can be engaged only in handing on a body of received wisdom. Some of our students, particularly from overseas, do come to us with the belief that they are here simply to learn from authority. What we hope all our students will have acquired by the time they leave us is a grasp of the balance between knowledge and analysis of evidence, an understanding of the ways in which new research in each academic discipline is constantly shifting that balance, and a recognition of and delight in intellectual challenge.

We teach transferable skills. A student who has learned to analyse evidence and solve problems within one discipline has acquired not only factual knowledge but also a way of handling data. Many employers know this. Careers advisers tell us that 40% of jobs for graduates are not degree-specific. Industrialists have been heard to say “you give them the education, we will give them the training”. There is much current emphasis on vocational training, but the vocational aspect of all education should not be overlooked. A university is a learning environment in which we hope all our students have equal opportunities to meet and learn the merits of intellectual rigour and intellectual integrity.

Contrary to beliefs recently ventilated in some newspapers, we have welcomed the opening of higher education to mature students. We have always welcomed overseas students and look forward to properly monitored educational exchanges with Europe. It is nothing but good for the intellectual climate of our universities that students now include those from a wide range of classes, age-groups and cultures, especially as many of the comparative newcomers are highly motivated, providing in themselves lessons of commitment and industry. Both the future work-force of this country and our overseas students returning home deserve the benefits of continuing high quality in British university education. But if these additional students are to be properly taught they need even more time, and more dedication, than the usual student at 18+. Mature learners, without recent experience of study skills, often lack confidence. Home students coming to university may suffer surprising agonies of home-sickness, but at least not the culture shock and the language difficulties of those from abroad. Pastoral support for students has always been perceived as one of our duties and as one of the strengths of our system.

The current emphasis on innovative teaching methods is designed to help us to teach more students, more cost-effectively. But the traditional values of British higher education need to survive alongside innovations. Staff-student ratios have been relaxed, but there is a point beyond which they cannot be reduced without our students losing the long-established benefits of the tutorial system. By tutorial we do not mean one-to-one teaching which has long since been dropped in most universities that have had to rationalise their teaching in accordance with their incomes. We mean the small-group component of academic teaching which allows the fostering and development of individual talent. It would be a grave loss if such small-group teaching were, in the interests of reform, to become a privilege of graduate schools only, and the majority of our undergraduates on 3-year courses were to find “cramming factory” a more accurate description of their place of study than “university”.

Most universities have departments or faculties engaged in expensive activities, which need economic justification. It costs more to educate a student in Medicine than one in Engineering, more to educate one in Engineering than one in Slavonic Studies. These costs do not relate to the value of the work to the community. It would be invidious to ask whether the doctor, the civil engineer or the expert in Russian will have more to offer Britain or Europe in the 1990s. This is one reason why, in spite of pressure on universities to act as if they were businesses, some business strategies are out of place in universities.

There are other reasons. The time-scales for planning, investment and return are different in the education and business worlds. Not all research can be judged in selectivity exercises based on 3-year output. Market forces can properly be applied in some areas. But it is arguable that no academic discipline should be allowed to sink without trace merely because it does not bring in large sums or attract large numbers of students. We shall cease to be a civilisation when we look at education only in terms of market forces, and especially in the volatile terms of the immediate market-place. Britain’s long-term need for trained graduates, and for research and teaching strength in science and technology, is undeniable. But Britain also needs a more widely educated population.

We are accountable as university teachers, and recent initiatives such as the CVCP Academic Audit Unit are aimed to ensure that all universities are equally accountable in terms of their teaching responsibilities. Applicants for a place at university, their parents, the public and the media see our role both individually and collectively in this way. But most of us entered the profession because of the intellectual challenge of scholarship and most of us are still actively engaged in research, whether in the humanities (where some of it has little industrial potential) or in the sciences where many of the nation’s economic prospects lie. Teaching at university level demands a constant exploration of the relation between received knowledge and research potential. It is essential for the kind of teaching we do, for the energies we wish to galvanise in our students, that we remain scholars as well as teachers. What the world chooses to call our “holidays” (i.e. the periods between university terms) is for most of us the space of time we spend on a professional activity as essential and as demanding as our teaching, and on which the quality of our teaching depends.

3. Current public attitudes towards higher education

The most encouraging evidence of rising support for higher education is the increasing number of applicants for places in universities and polytechnics. Ten years ago it was predicted that the student population would decrease after 1989, because of a long-term decrease in the number of 18 year-olds after a peak in 1982. But this demographic decline has been offset by an increasing rate of entry into higher education by school-leavers, and also by an increase in the number of students starting courses at age 21 or above. The number of U.K. applicants for university entrance increased by about 35% over the five years to 1991, and the number of accepted students increased similarly, with the proportion accepted at age 21 or above rising to 14.0% in 1991.

As the total number of students has grown, however, the level of financial support for them through maintenance grants has fallen and resources required to teach them in adequate fashion have been severely stretched. The preparedness of students entering university appears to have declined generally in recent years, and there has yet to be full adjustment to the wider range of entry qualifications arising from expanded access. The NCUP is gladdened by the rising tide of opinion in favour of higher education, specifically the spreading acceptance that three or four years of study after school is a worthwhile investment of time and effort. And we hope that even more students, from all social classes, can be taught adequately. But we know that, without additional help from the Government commensurate with its declared aims for higher education, serious deterioration will be inevitable which will deny many students their opportunity for high-quality training.

Despite the gradual expansion of the student population, the advancement of higher education in the U.K. is still impeded by a negative bias of public opinion about universities. In particular, the general public has yet to appreciate advantages of the new, broadened university system.

Misconceptions about teaching and research activities are still widespread, owing in part to the shortage of reliable information conveyed by the media and in part to the traditional British suspicion of the expert. The deficiency is decidedly worst in England, much less but by no means absent in Scotland and Wales. In this regard international comparisons show that the U.K. has a disadvantage yet to be overcome in order to ensure its economic vitality in the 1990s and beyond. Public opinion in France, Germany and the U.S.A. is decidedly more sympathetic towards higher education as a widely available recourse for young people and as a means of national progress.

Public opinion about universities is influenced to a large extent by their portrayals on television, and in the U.K. the misleading probably outweighs the benign. On the one hand, universities generally benefit from programmes popularising science, archaeology and history, and from documentary accounts of university life. Accurate insights into the work of universities are often provided thereby.

On the other hand, drama on British television is usually not friendly to universities. Several comedy series, dramatisations of satirical university fiction, have been seen by many millions during the last 13 years. They were all extremely funny, and the caricature was so gross that only undiscerning viewers would be misled. None of it would matter if the public were sufficiently au fait with current realities on campus to recognise the extent of the parody. But much of the public does not have this advantage, and is also susceptible to being misled by ill-informed journalism about academic issues. The prolific, basically valuable endeavours of British higher education are still partly obscured by a miasma of imaginary eccentricity and out-of-date sentimentality created by external commentary.

4. Means to improve public opinion

Efforts to publicise the work of universities deserve to be directed broadly, including as targets the many people whose lives have no contact with higher education. Every citizen is entitled to accurate, easily understood information about the role of universities as instruments of social progress and channels of national investment. But among the general public there are four groups who may have direct interest and are owed particular attention: (a) those who have contacts through living in a university city or town, and/or through the wide-ranging work of extramural departments; (b) those with children going on to higher education; (c) the country’s graduate population, many of whom are out of touch and believe higher education is just as it was when they experienced it; and (d) employers of university graduates, in small as well as large companies.

The NCUP believes that much remains to be done towards informing the public more fully and accurately about universities, particularly about their adaptation to an ever-widening range of students, their internationally acclaimed scientific and other learned achievements, and the ‘atmosphere of scholarship and research’ that nourishes effective teaching in universities. But ways and means for progress are already clear: there are many excellent precedents. For example, most universities and all the new ones (ex-polytechnics) have good records of publishing lively pamphlets and other material which tell prospective students and their parents about available courses and the ethos of the institution. Many universities have gained outstanding reputations for service to the local community.

There is still a long way to go, however, towards raising public esteem for the British university system as a whole, matching the respect enjoyed by its counterparts in continental Europe and the U.S.A., and so improving the image of learning and research as a national resource. Advances will depend primarily on the initiatives of individual universities, but nationwide campaigns could also be well worthwhile. The CVCP is the body best qualified to address such a task, in which it can depend on the collaboration of the NCUP and other organisations dedicated to the best interests of the university system.

We list as follows some of the principal courses of action available for increasing the public’s and the Government’s awareness of, and sympathy towards, the activities of universities. Most of them are already in extensive use:

(1) Extramural lectures and demonstrations, for Adult Education and for general audiences.

(2) Town-and-gown collaborations including theatre, music, local history and archaeology. Regular open days on campus.

(3) Persistent and well-explained reporting of university news for attention by local radio and newspapers.

(4) Dissemination of attractive literature about the university, designed to inform teenagers and their parents.

(5) Popularisation of scientific and other achievements by the university, in newspapers and on radio and television. Publicity for research with a local connection (e.g. helping a local hospital or engineering company).

(6) Discreet but determined provision of material for national television, including documentary accounts of university life and contributions to discussion programmes by academic staff as experts.

(7) Reliable, well-documented representations about university issues to MPs and others in positions of influence.

(8) Well-balanced publicity about details of the expanded university system, carefully explaining the differences in mission among the component universities.

(9) Regular communications with alumni, seeking advice and (voluntary) participation in teaching and research as well as financial help.

(10) Visits to schools by academic staff. Organisation of workshops in mathematics, languages, music, etc. for interested children from neighbouring schools.

(11) Promotion of local and national interest in university sports.

We appreciate the existing achievements of many universities in these courses of action. But we wish to encourage wider and even more determined initiatives aimed at publicising what universities do and why it is of importance to the nation. In our view all university staff should accept a commitment to help with such activities.

Co-ordinated rather than competitive endeavours will be the most valuable in the long run. While the four classes of people noted at the start of this section deserve priority as targets for up-to-date information, efforts to improve awareness should also be directed to the whole population. We advocate that universities should collaborate among themselves, and with other institutions of higher and further education, in the promotion of life-long learning as a national goal. The university system will be much better able to evolve effectively if public understanding of its services becomes broader and more sympathetic.

This document is approved for unrestricted circulation. Criticism or commentary will be welcome from any reader. Responses should be addressed to the NCUP Secretariat, School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 219, Reading, RG7 3XH