NCUP annual lecture 17 February 2021

NCUP annual lecture 17 February 2021

A New Vision for Higher Education Post Covid-19: From Policy-Takers to Policy-Makers

Sir Anthony Seldon

This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, our annual lecture was delivered virtually; 48 people attended including NCUP members and affiliates and members of the general public. The lecture is available on YouTube and as a podcast.

Introduced by NCUP President, Janet Wilson, as ‘a man of many parts’, Sir Anthony Seldon, historian, educator, author and recently retired Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham addressed the gathering on the post-COVID landscape for UK universities. Initially asking the question about what an ancient university such as Oxford and one of the newest universities, the University of the Highlands and Islands does, Sir Anthony surveyed the range of influences in terms of funding, policy and politics that impinge on UK universities. Pointing to the lack of a clear UK Government strategy for higher education, his thesis was that the HE sector has increasingly, become the end-product of educational policy rather than the collective voice forming this policy. The balance, he argued, should be shifted towards UK universities becoming more active policymakers regarding their own destiny. This problem, reflecting vocational or economic priorities rather than educational or research ones, was apparent pre-COVID, but the pandemic has added an additional dimension with implications for the delivery and the cost of UK higher education.

UK universities are usually reported in the media for the wrong reasons. In Sir Anthony’s words: ‘So often though, it is the bad stories, of students fenced in, speakers banned from talking, and excessive VC pay that make the headlines.’ However, ‘Universities, despite some lurid headlines, have done a really good job keeping teaching, research and learning going during the lockdown. They have great stories to tell.’

Using an A to W of ’24 Challenges’ as his guide, Sir Anthony covered, among other things, challenges such as the impact of the pandemic, the value of Chinese students to our educational economy, access to BAME and other underrepresented groups, mental health of students and the question of free speech. With direct relevance to the pandemic, which has seen UK universities make a very successful transition to distance and online learning and teaching, Sir Anthony emphasised how they should now make this mode of education a driver in taking the lead. He concluded that these issues were as important for the Oxford and Cambridge and the red brick universities as for the University of the Highlands and Islands.