Category Archives: Speeches

University: Change and Challenge

On 14th October Dame Julia addressed the Rochester Cathedral Business Guild. This post is taken from her keynote speech which considered the change and challenge facing universities.

Delighted to be invited.  What better than to be asked to talk about my favourite topic – universities. Like all areas, we have been subject to change and challenge.

So what does a university look like today? 

Well, the University of Kent has a turnover of about £220M a year, with about 3000 staff and 20,000 students.  We have students from 149 nationalities: 71% from the UK, 11% from the EU and 18% international.  We are ‘hotels’   5,400 bedrooms on the Canterbury Campus and over 1,100 at Liberty Quays in Medway. Overall, we are big and complex businesses. But very special businesses because we are not producing things. Our products are people and ideas. So managing such large and complex organisations is a challenge.

Like other businesses, we compete in order to attract good students and staff.   We need not only to do well but also we need to be seen to being doing well.   so another challenge is the increasing marketization of universities – and the extra costs that come with this.

Comparison of universities through endless league tables  is a growing and thriving activity.   Out of the some 130 UK universities that are included in these tables, Kent has achieved some encouraging recent rankings: Guardian – 20; Complete University Guide 23;Times/Sunday Times 23 and  short listed university of the year  by the Sunday times and also by Times Higher Education – the sectors main news outlet.

We have also risen 100 places in the various world league tables but they are another challenge.

In most part, the UK  league tables are built on two key measurements. The first is the student experience as determined by the annual national student survey –   we generally score vary highly in this. So a challenge is in maintaining our ranking.

The other is research performance through something called the Research Excellence Framework – last done in 2014 – we came 17th in the country for the intensity of our research.

Of course the biggest challenge for all of us is money, in terms of teaching UK domiciled students; we cannot charge more than £9000 under the new loan system.  All students are eligible for the loan.  We no longer get a block grant from the government but if you like individual payments from the student loan company.

What are the consequences? 

This has taken the expenditure off the Department for Business Innovation and Skills balance sheet. However, there is a difference between what goes out in loan and what comes in in repayments – repayable over 30 years. HMT is well aware of this ‘bill’.  From the student expenditure they are now graduating with considerable ‘debt’ although the pay back terms are progressive and nothing like that of credit card debt.

An increasing challenge for universities is the fact that maximum fee has not gone up with inflation.  There may be some movement in 2017 but we still have had six years with this maximum at a time when costs are increasing.

However, our range of income streams have allowed us to borrow significant funding for capital projects – so there are significant building programmes both here in Medway and in Canterbury. Let me be clear.   These investments would not be possible without income from international students and premium fee postgraduate courses. Cutting the number of international students cuts investment in your area.

So how do we differentiate the University of Kent from other universities?

One area is excellence in both teaching and research. The other is our focus on Europe – UK’s European university. This is in part a matter of geography – Kent is the closest county to continental Europe and now at the heart of High Speed One and transport through the tunnel to France and Belgium. In part, history – there is a tradition of educational links between Kent and the continent spread stretching back over 1500 years.

We have study centres in four European capitals; we benefit from being able to recruit academic staff from continental Europe. We and the localities also benefit from over 2000 non-UK European students from 43 different European countries. We score particularly highly on our international outlook. So a certain referendum may be a challenge.

Finally, I would like to talk about our focus on ‘place’.  We are located in the main in Kent and Medway.  Around a quarter of our undergraduates come from within the Kent and Medway areas.

A part of our engagement with the region lies in the efforts we devote to encouraging all those that can benefit to apply for university:  whatever their backgrounds.  We work with 40 partner schools and 3 partner colleges. We sponsor an academy school, Brompton Academy. Overall, we work on an intensive basis with 1500 school students per year and employ 340 University of Kent student ambassadors –Our clear experience is that sustained engagement over time with those at school increases the likelihood that they will progress to University.

You are all aware of the changes around the Universities at Medway campus.  Next week I am looking forward to attending the opening ceremony for our latest major transformation in the Historic Dockyard to mark the conversion of the Sail and Colour Loft into new teaching and office space for our Business School and the chapel into a modern lecture theatre.

All our analysis shows that the region benefits by about £750M a year directly and indirectly from the presence of the University of Kent.   We are a major local business.  We want to continue to work with you to encourage more investment in and development of the great potential that it is within the Kent and Medway region.

Thank you



Access to Higher Education: Hamburg Transnational University Leaders Council

At a time when we are facing an extraordinary expansion of demand for Universities, it is important to look not only at the pool of those who attend but also those who do not attend.

All universities have as core missions the provision of higher education and (for most) the furtherance of learning through the discovery of new knowledge and new ideas. We exist to pursue excellence wherever this may be found, irrespective of the social, ethnic, gender or economic background of those we educate or those who conduct research. As a corollary: if there is not fairness in opportunity, both the individual and society may lose out.

One way of looking at fairness of opportunity is through the prism of income. According to the OECD, income inequality in its member countries is at its highest level for the past half century, with an average income of the richest 10% of the population about nine times that of the poorest 10%. Income may, however, not be the best metric for assessing whether access to higher education is fair. In the UK, we use an area based classification system based on the proportion of young residents who go onto higher education. Historically, you are about [three times] as likely to go to university if you come from the top quintile that if you come from the bottom.

Of course, correlation is not causation and it does not follow that if you come from an educationally disadvantaged area you will necessarily benefit from a university education. Nonetheless, in the UK there is a national strategy that all those with the potential to benefit from higher education have equal opportunity to participate and succeed, on a course and in an institution that best fit their potential, needs and ambitions for employment or further study.

The central body for ensuring the strategy is carried out is called the Office for Fair Access.  OFFA was set up about ten years ago to make sure that the introduction of higher tuition fees did not deter people from entering higher education of financial grounds. OFFA agrees ‘Fair Access’ arrangements with all HEIs that have tuition fees in excess of £6,000. These agreements are paid for by a levy (currently about £800 on a £9,000 tuition fee).  It is worth at this point, incidentally, noting that since tuition fees were introduced in the UK at their present level, in 2012, the number of full time students has grown – and this includes those from family backgrounds with no previous experience of higher education.

While a core element of these fair access agreements is the provision of bursaries, there is also a growing aspect that focusses on  measures to attract disadvantaged students and to support them during their studies and as they prepare to move on to work or further study.  In the University of Kent, for example, we work with 40 partner schools and 3 partner colleges. We sponsor an academy school that focusses on improving education for particularly disadvantaged children. Overall, we work on an intensive basis with 1500 students per year and employ 340 student ambassadors – working with the existing student body is, incidentally, an important part of our own strategy. Our clear experience is that sustained engagement over time with those at school increases the likelihood that they will progress to University.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, those from disadvantaged backgrounds often come to university with lower educational qualifications than those from more advantaged backgrounds. There has been criticism that the policy therefore lowers standards overall. That has not, however, been our experience. Nationally, 83% of ‘outreach’ HE entrants achieve a first degree – and 57% a good degree.

Under the previous UK government, there was an emerging policy on improving social mobility overall – not only in terms of access to higher education but also in many other areas of perceived inequality of opportunity. It is too early to tell what policies may be followed by the present government.

From the perspective of the individual, in the UK, a degree can improve lifetime earnings by on average £100,000, compared with those qualifications at the next level down. Insofar as earnings represent a proxy for economic value to society, it is clear that increasing the numbers at university of those able to benefit, represents a gain for society at large – this is not to mention the contribution that graduates can make in other ways.

And in knowledge economies – which, increasingly is what all our countries are becoming – we should ignore at our peril the importance of supporting the gifted individuals who are capable of paradigm-altering insights. Last week, the Physicist Professor Stephen Hawking was quoted in the press as fearing that academics would not now be provided with the same level of support that he himself had received when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. I believe he is wrong. But the value to society in providing exceptional support in some circumstances is clear.

What lessons to draw from this overview? I suggest there are three principles that may be relevant not only to the UK but to perhaps others represented at this conference:

  • Excellence should be pursued wherever it may be found
  • Fair Access is a benefit not only for the individual but for Society as a whole; and, therefore
  • Ensuring fair access is a responsibility for both society and universities, working in partnership