Universities in England have felt generally unloved since the pandemic; criticised by politicians and media alike, first over remote teaching and value for money, and more recently over freedom of speech. In an era of tight public spending constraints, ministers have felt little pressure to loosen the purse strings, even though tuition fees for undergraduates have been frozen for five years and student maintenance loans are set to rise by 2.8 percent at a time of 10 percent inflation.
A new report on public attitudes to higher education suggests that universities may enjoy more support than previously supposed, although perhaps not enough to influence a government that is facing a wave of public sector strikes (including by university lecturers) and gloomy economic forecasts. But the polling, commissioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the independent charity UPP, shows more backing for universities than in last year’s initial exercise, and considerably more than in the United States.
The Public First polling organisation, which interviewed almost 2,000 adults last summer, found that 63 percent of those with definite views on the subject believed that universities were heading in broadly the right direction. The findings were effectively reversed in the last equivalent US survey, by the Pew Research Center in 2019, with only 38 percent thinking the country’s universities were taking the right direction and 62 percent feeling they were not.
Nor did the results divide on political lines as much in England as in the USA. There were only two percentage points between Labour and Conservative voters in the positive and negative categories, whereas Republicans and Democrats were 20 percentage points apart. Almost three-quarters of Republicans disapproved of the direction American universities were taking.
There was good news, too, for English universities on the perennially controversial topic of how many higher education students there should be. Ever since Tony Blair’s government set a target of 50 percent participation, there has been a movement, mainly among Conservative voters, to put expansion into reverse. The latest polling found 37 percent were satisfied with the current level of participation and another 17 percent wanted more students, while only 27 percent thought a smaller proportion of the population should go to university.
The findings on research were even more positive, with almost 70 percent agreeing that “university research is one of the best things produced in the UK”. Three-quarters of those polled thought that universities were important to research and innovation, and 57 percent agreed that they were important to the UK economy as a whole. Half of all respondents accepted that even during the current public spending squeeze, research should receive funding from the taxpayer, although more than a third thought a lot of the money spent on it was wasted.
Despite the encouraging overall results, however, English universities will be concerned about negative findings in the “culture wars” sections of the new survey and about the differing perceptions by age group and educational qualifications. One in five thought taking a degree was a “waste of time” and this proportion rose to almost one in three among 18-24 year-olds. Although 75 percent considered collecting a degree an impressive achievement, 58 percent did not think it prepared students for the “real world”.
On freedom of speech, 57 percent believed that it was under “at least some threat” on campus, and these concerns differed little by political persuasion. While 62 percent of Conservatives saw a threat, Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters were only three and four percentage points behind respectively. The findings are significant, considering the succession of ministers, as well as media commentators, who have criticised universities over curriculum changes, trigger warnings and the treatment of individual academics with unpopular views. But the latest polling demonstrates that the critics are far from united on what universities should be doing. While 56 percent said that universities should always defend and promote free speech on campus, even if that offends or upsets some groups of students, only 46 percent thought that universities should completely protect people’s ability to say what they like on campus, even when what they say is offensive to others.
There were also differences of opinion on student funding, with 71 percent of respondents believing that the cost of living and economic pressures would deter people from going to university in the next few years, and 57 percent thinking that the Government should provide additional support to students. Yet only 10 percent placed students among the top three groups they would prioritise for support with the cost of living, compared to 57 percent for those on minimum wage and 47 percent for pensioners.
Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation, said “These challenging findings around cost of living – and the lack of support from the public to make students a priority group for financial aid – means it is incumbent on all of us working in the higher education sector to continue to make the case for student access and success.”
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the report, however, was the low level of engagement with universities at any level. Three in 10 of those polled were classified as “broadly uninterested”, including 38 percent who had been students themselves. More than half of all respondents thought that society overvalues a degree, although most would still want their own children to go to university.
Nearly half of those interviewed had not interacted with a university in any way over the course of the previous year, whether visiting a campus, having contact with students or staff, or even seeing an academic interviewed on television. Fewer than one in five had been on a campus during the year, a proportion which dropped close to one in 10 for those from the two lowest socio-economic classes. The after-effects of the pandemic may have depressed the figures for in-person visits, but those for other forms of engagement remain surprisingly low.
According to Brabner, these findings encouraged a number of universities to send the report to their governing bodies to debate how they could boost engagement with the public. “The real challenge is how to engage with lower socio-economic groups and make people more aware of the value of universities,” he said. “It is not enough to be able to demonstrate in data that your university is having an economic or social impact if there is no corresponding belief amongst the general public that such an impact exists.”
As in 2021, those taking part in the exercise were divided into seven groups according to their general view of universities, from the 16 percent who see higher education as critical to finding a good job to the 10 percent who support universities primarily for their research – and the similar proportion who see them as an entry ticket to elites. Most displayed similar attitudes to the previous year. The exception was the group labelled as University Pessimists – predominantly Conservative voters who did not experience higher education – who had become “increasingly extreme” since 2021. Two-thirds of them dismissed a university degree as a waste of time, compared to less than half in the last report, and only 6 percent thought universities had a positive effect on the country.
Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said: “A sustained advocacy job will need to be done either side of the next general election if more people are to understand the true value of higher education. One of the most dispiriting findings is how many people have only very rarely, or never, knowingly visited – or even apparently engaged passively with – a university. It is clear universities need to do more to welcome people onto campus and to make their activity more visible.”
The polling is intended to become an annual exercise tracking public views of higher education and the value of a degree. Brabner added: “All my conversations with vice-chancellors suggest that they are really interested in these issues and recognise there is a lot of work to be done.”
Universities UK has launched a national conversation on higher education funding, with the fee for home undergraduates worth little more than £6,000 in real terms, compared to the £9,250 originally approved. The Public Attitudes report should provide some ammunition for the campaigners, but also a measure of how far universities have to go to win the support of large sections of the population.
This article was from the QS Insights Magazine, Issue 2. Read the full edition.