Convention for HE Statement, A New Future for HE

This is an edited version of a statement developed, discussed and agreed at a 200-strong online meeting of academic staff and supporters of Higher Education on Saturday 23 May 2020. You can add your support to this statement below.

No return to ‘Business as Usual’:
Time for a New Future for Higher Education

1. The Crisis in Higher Education

Covid-19 has brought universities to the brink of collapse. An estimated 30-60,000 jobs are at risk, and many universities are confronting bankruptcy. The Government’s fee/loan market reforms of Higher Education were originally justified as a way to provide a sustainable future for HE and facilitate student choice. Instead, they have created a financial bubble, the over-expansion of some institutions while others shrank, and debt-fuelled building projects leveraged on ever-growing home and overseas student numbers.

2. The Public Value of Higher Education

The expected economic depression in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will disproportionately affect young people, and those in the poorest areas of the UK. We need a strong, sustainable HE system if the UK is to recover. Universities are uniquely equipped to enable the development of new knowledge and skills, and thus a social and economic renewal.

The ideology of the tuition fee market has prioritised the private benefit of Higher Education over the public good. But universities do not merely train students for the workplace: they are the centres of research and scholarship essential to the understanding of society and its ills; they develop our culture; and they facilitate much-needed public debate.

  • Support for universities must be based on a model of public funding, in conjunction with planned support for a reinvigorated Further Education sector.

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Speeches at the HE Convention Statement launch meeting / online Parliamentary lobby, 21 July 2020


  • Prof John Holmwood, Chair, Campaign for the Public University

The Labour Party position

  • Emma Hardy, Labour shadow minister for Higher Education, MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle Full text


  • Lord Rowan Williams of Oystermouth, Chair of Trustees, Council for the Defence of British Universities

More speeches will be published shortly…

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Speech at HE Convention Statement launch meeting – Emma Hardy MP

  • Emma Hardy, Labour shadow minister for Higher Education, MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle.

Speaking live from her Parliamentary office, Emma had to leave sharply as the division bell (calling Members to vote) took place during her speech. The text of her speech is below, as is a transcription of her responses later to questions asked by Deepa Driver, Reading (chair).


COVID-19 has sent shockwaves through the higher education sector. In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown Universities were faced with the challenge of moving their courses online, helping students to access those courses, confusion over accommodation, hardship funds, exams, awarding degrees — a seemingly endless barrage of problems all requiring prompt and robust solutions.

During the first months of the crisis the DfE chose to sit on its hands. When called to act in support of universities it deferred to their independent status, generic business support or to the role of the Office for Students and left the sector to its own devices. Fortunately, higher education is populated with dedicated, adaptable and resourceful people and I would like to commend you all for coping with the pandemic as well as you did.

Then the financial implications for the future started to roll in.

The Institute for Financial studies IFS gave its central estimate of total long-run sector losses at £11 billion — more than a quarter of the usual income in one year.

Universities are unlikely to be able to claw back a large portion of these losses through cost savings unless they make significant numbers of staff redundant. In the IFS central scenario, they estimate that cost savings could reduce the overall bill by only £600 million or around 6% without redundancies.

The London Economics paper on the “Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on University Finances” predicted a total of 60,000 jobs could be lost in the sector.

The IFS study predicted thirteen universities, educating around 5% of students, would end up with negative reserves and so may not be viable in the long run without a government bailout or debt restructuring.

In some regions our universities are one of the few graduate employers and any job losses will have a negative impact on the local economy in which a university resides. Of the 60,000 job losses predicted by the London Economics paper, 30,000 were in the local community and the total amount of lost spending in local economies was a staggering £6.1bn.

The government must understand that you can’t level up by shutting down.

The Government’s response to the looming university financial crisis has been to launch an attack on the sector: accusing it of offering “low value degrees”; astonishingly implying that if you don’t come from a family where your parents have gone to university you could be tricked into attending university.

There is a real opportunity for true social mobility and revolutionary change in the makeup of universities if the universities all deliver on their 5 year widening opportunities and access plans, the government should be doubling down on this commitment rather than throwing widening participation targets under the bus by the University Minister telling the Education Select Committee “it doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university.”

Having rejected proposals for both a sector-wide guarantee and then targeted bailouts, the government has now announced its Higher Education Restructuring Regime, which, in its opening remarks by Gavin Williamson, declares “it is not a guarantee that no organisation will fail”.

Labour cannot countenance the loss of a single university because we cannot countenance the equal loss of opportunity. At a time when the country is facing the possibility of the deepest recession in its history — when unemployment is set to soar and when retraining and reskilling will be more needed than ever – the Government’s position is beyond rational comprehension.

The Higher Education Restructuring Regime also threatens the total breadth of provision the institution provides in its area.

Wholesale course cuts would create regional “cold spots” leaving a geographical area without adequate provision.  Local provision is vital for so-called “commuter students” who are predominantly from the most disadvantaged groups – part-timers, low-income families, mature and BAME students.

Instead of the government supporting Life Long Learning we could instead see a reduction of opportunity and aspiration at the local level for those who need it most at the worst possible time.

Any University forced into accessing a loan through Higher Education Restructuring Regime must consider, amongst other things: ending “duplication of courses”; whether level 4 or 5 courses may be more appropriate; and whether local FE institutions might be better placed to offer them. These considerations must be placed in context and recognise the economic reality facing FE.

It cannot be overstated that FE has been defunded to the tune of £1.4 billion a year in real terms compared to 2010 levels. This government have offered only a £300 million sticking-plaster. There is very limited capacity to relocate students to local FE. In fact, if what we’re hearing is right, in the face of current crisis half of FE colleges are planning on making redundancies.

Gavin Williamson’s talk of “rebalancing” funding between FE and HE makes it sound as if resources have been pulled from FE into, HE. This is not the case. It was a Conservative Party decision to remove student number caps, create a market led university system, only offer loans and funding for degrees and cut funding to FE and adult Education. The funding, via loans, followed the market the government created.

The Labour Party’s position is that everyone, everywhere has the right to the education and training they need.

What people need is high-quality careers advice and guidance combined with genuine choice. This means the course they want must affordable and locally available: whatever it is and whoever is providing it. For this to happen both further education and adult education must be properly funded. We need a post 18 landscape that includes even more degree apprenticeships, part-time degrees, modular courses and that is accompanied by levels of maintenance funding that makes them a realistic proposition.

To enable real choice for everyone the government should be focused on identifying the barriers to learning and breaking them down not establishing more.

We cannot ever see a situation again where Education is viewed as a privilege for the few and not a right for all. We all have a right to learn and having an educated population not only helps us individually but as a country too, no country’s economy has grown on the back of reducing access to higher education.

It matters which groups in society get access to university.

It is true that the biggest barrier preventing those born into disadvantage improving their situation is being born disadvantaged itself. Our universities are being asked to solve the problems of social mobility at the same time as child poverty is growing and the attainment gap widening, if the government are serious about social mobility then I suggest that they must tackle this problem head on.

Our Higher Education system is not perfect and there is always more the sector can do, for example, to tackle the BAME attainment gap, support for disadvantaged students during university, the suitability of some courses and how welcoming institutions are to mature and part time students… amongst others, but I recognise the progress already made on Vice Chancellors pay and awarding grades and I would encourage the sector not to leave itself vulnerable to lazy attacks.

The development of blended learning has been an abject lesson in the sector’s responsiveness and willingness to evolve and this could be applied to improving the offer to those with SEND for example, to widen opportunities even further.

Labour believe universities have a vital community and development role to play in helping the country to build back better. Many are already actively engaged in the task.

I have read with great interest The Civic University Commission Report and its proposals that all universities develop a clear strategy, in cooperation with local partners, that is rooted in a robust and shared analysis of local needs and opportunities and I am very supportive of these suggestions.

The Government should be doing everything in its power to support and assist our universities. The vision Labour are keen to foster is that of universities as the powerhouses of local regeneration and of social mobility.


The final part of the contribution I wanted to make is really around this commitment to universities and recognising their importance both in what they do for people as an individual and what they do for society more widely.

I think sometimes we have lost — well, not us, but the country has lost — that sense of the importance of universities as public bodies and the contribution that they bring, not just in terms of an economic sense but a cultural sense, and I am concerned, as I mentioned earlier, about the lazy attacks that have been levelled at universities during these incredibly difficult times. And one of the fears I have at the moment is that we are going to see the same pace of change in the Higher Education sector that we saw in the school sector between 2010 and 2015.

So I am sorry that I missed everyone else’s contributions. I wanted to use my final comments to make reference to the points that other people have made, so in my last two minutes if there is anything super-quick that anyone would like me to mention if I missed it before I have to disappear?

Deepa Driver: Can you give us advice about Parliamentary lobbying? Are there things we can do?

Yes, absolutely. In terms of the Labour Party response and my response in that area, and we are launching sort of a bit of a…. well, I can’t say too much about it as it will be launched on Friday… a bit of a response, and talking more widely about where Labour see the importance of Higher Education. In terms of offering you more of a platform in Parliament, I’m more than happy to; it was a shame we haven’t been able to do it physically, and hopefully in the future we could hold a physical event in Parliament.

But some of the other things you can do are: there are various cross-party groups set up in Parliament — there’s the All Party Parliamentary Group for Universities, the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Students, and the the All Party Parliamentary Group for Students as well. So there are a number of different vehicles in which you could make your voice heard.

Seeing as a constituency MP, the reason I am most likely to attend an event is because people living in my constituency have asked me to, I would obviously urge people to contact their Member of Parliament and ask them to attend a local event. And there are various consultations going on in all of these All Party Parliamentary Groups that I would urge you all to get involved in.

As I say, I think the pace of change is going to pick up and the narrative coming out from the Government is concerning. I think the sector needs to try and be as united and as strong as possible in countering some of this and standing up for what you all do and the difference you all make not just for individuals but the community and society as a whole. As I said earlier on, no country improves its economy and social cohesion by restricting access to university, and I hope that I have reassured you that I will try and be a champion for the sector as much as possible, because I know the opportunity that it brings and how life-changing it can be.


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Statement launch and online Parliamentary lobby, Tuesday 21 July

Online meeting: Tuesday 21 July, 5.30-7.00pm

Covid-19 has plunged UK higher education into a deep financial crisis. Tens of thousands of posts are at risk, and over a dozen universities are predicted to be at risk of outright bankruptcy. But the pandemic has exposed problems, rather than creating them. Well before Covid-19, marketisation was wreaking havoc on higher education.

So far, the government has offered only limited support, amounting to little more than a sticking plaster on a fundamentally flawed system.

Through two large online meetings, the Convention for Higher Education has developed a set of demands for policymakers on how to rescue universities and put our higher education system onto a truly sustainable footing.

Now is the time to start pressing our politicians for meaningful action. This starts with an online lobby with the Shadow Higher Education Minister, Emma Hardy MP.

This is a crucial opportunity to take real action to defend our universities and students. Please join us!


  • Prof John Holmwood (Campaign for the Public University) will introduce the Convention for Higher Education’s recommendations for a policy response.
  • Representatives from the hardest-hit institutions (including Reading, Liverpool, SOAS) will share what is happening to them.
  • Emma Hardy MP, Labour shadow Higher Education minister, will outline the risks to universities and what Labour believes the government should do to provide support.
  • Lord Rowan Williams (Council for the Defence of British Universities) and Matt Crilly (NUS Scotland President) will offer short responses.

Other speakers have been invited to discuss how we can build the movement to defend higher education and access. We will also take as many questions from the floor as possible. 

The meeting was recorded.

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Letter to Ministers from Professional Associations – BRISMES et al

Secretary of State for Education
The RT Hon Gavin Williamson CBE

Minister of State for Universities
Michelle Donelan

Minister for Education in Wales,
Kirsty Williams MS

Minister for Higher Education and Science in Scotland,
Richard Lochhead MSP

Minister for the Department of Education of Northern Ireland,
Peter Weir MLA

Minister for Science, Research and Innovation,
Amanda Solloway MP

17 June 2020

Dear Ministers,

We are writing to you as officers of 48 professional associations representing diverse research fields to express our profound concern about the future of higher education in the UK. COVID-19 has simultaneously highlighted the huge importance of university research to tackling the virus and its social and economic implications as well as the unsustainability of the current funding model for tertiary education.

Higher education makes a fundamentally significant contribution to society. It expands our knowledge and understanding of the world through an array of research discoveries, improves the life chances of individuals by enhancing social mobility and opportunities, advances the economy by carrying out innovative research, and provides each new generation with cultural knowledge as well as cutting edge skills and expertise. Yet, currently, UK public spending on tertiary education amounts to only a quarter of university budgets, which is not only the lowest among OECD countries, but comprises considerably less than half of the average spending among the OECD’s other 34 countries. It is therefore not surprising that nearly 25 percent of all UK universities were in deficit even before the pandemic and that now, due to a dramatic drop in projected income, almost all higher education institutions in the country will face huge obstacles to carry out their mission and remain internationally competitive without government support.

A vibrant and robust higher education system is absolutely vital for the UK’s future. We believe that the current government funding model for higher education is inadequate for this task and we therefore call upon you to use the current crisis as an opportunity to create a new deal for higher education. Rather than providing a one-time bailout, it is paramount that the UK and devolved governments substantially increases public spending on tertiary education in line with the OECD average in order to ensure that our tertiary institutions remain at the forefront of global research, education and innovation.

Yours sincerely,

African Studies Association of the United Kingdom — Professor Ambreena Manji
Architectural Humanities Research Association — Professor Jonathan Hale
Arts and Humanities Alliance — Professor Susan Bruce
Association for Art History — Professor Frances Fowle
Association for German Studies — Professor Margaret Littler
Association for Welsh Writing in English — Professors Kirsti Bohata and Matthew Jarvis
Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, UK and Ireland — Dr John Miller
Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland — Professor Claire Taylor
Association of Programmes in Translation and Interpreting Studies — Dr JC Penet and Dr Olga Castro
Association for Publishing Education — Professor Claire Squires
Association of University Professors and Heads of French — Professor Marion Schmid
British Association for American Studies — Dr Cara Rodway
British Association for Cognitive Neuroscience — Professor Jamie Ward
British Association for Slavonic & East European Studies — Dr Matthias Neumann
British Association for South Asian Studies — Professor Patricia Jeffery
British Association for Study of Religions — Professor Bettina Schmidt
British Association for Victorian Studies — Professor Dinah Birch CBE
British Association of Academic Phoneticians — Professor Jane Stuart-Smith
British Association of Critical Legal Scholars — Professor Adam Gearey
British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies — Dr James Leggott
British Comparative Literature Association — Professor Susan Bassnett
British International Studies Association — Professor Mark Webber
British Philosophical Association — Professor Fiona Macpherson, FRSE, MAE
British Society for Middle Eastern Studies — Professor Haleh Afshar
British Society for the History of Science — Dr Tim Boon
British Sociological Association — Professor Susan Halford
British Universities Industrial Relations Association — Professor Tony Dobbins
Council of University Classical Departments — Professor Helen Lovatt
Economic History Society — Professor Catherine Schenk
English Association — Dr Rebecca Fisher
Feminist Studies Association — Dr Laura Clancy and Dr Sara De Benedictis,
History UK — Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones, Dr Yolana Pringle and Dr Jamie Wood
Linguistics Association of Great Britain — Professor Caroline Heycock
Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association — Professor Anita Biressi
Modern Humanities Research Association — Dr Barbara Burns
Newcomen Society — Dr Jonathan Aylen
Oral History Society — Professor John Gabriel
Royal Musical Association — Professor Simon McVeigh
Royal Society of Literature — Professor Marina Warner, DBE, CBE, FBA
Socio-Legal Studies Association — Professor Rosie Harding
Society for French Studies — Professor Judith Still
Society for Latin American Studies — Professor Patience Schell
Society for Old Testament Study — Dr Walter Houston
Society for Renaissance Studies — Professor Richard Wistreich
Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry — Professor Frank James
Standing Conference of University Drama Departments — Professor Kate Newey
Theatre & Performance Research Association — Professor Roberta Mock
University Council of Modern Languages — Professor Claire Gorrara
Women in German Studies — Professor Ingrid Sharp

See also

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Model motion for UCU branches

Motion: Building a political consensus to defend HE

This Branch/Region/Committee notes:

  1. the predicted HE UK financial crisis in 2020-21 due to an expected collapse in student numbers as a result of Covid-19
  2. that no new funding for HE is currently offered from the Johnson Government, despite spending ~£100bn in self-employment subsidies and furlough
  3. that employers are attacking staff now: SOAS and Roehampton have announced redundancy plans, Roehampton cutting pay; other HEIs are refusing to renew contracts of HPLs, threatening to leave national pay bargaining, etc.
  4. the Statement launched by the Convention for Higher Education, calling for an affordable* socially-progressive rescue package of a 30% tuition fee subsidy and student maintenance grant, which is envisaged to have the greatest benefit to socially inclusive universities, including post-92.

This Branch/Region/Committee believes:

  1. that the Government sees a 2020-21 market failure as an opportunity to shrink the university sector through bankruptcies and mergers,
  2. that we face a limited window of opportunity to get the Convention Statement on the radar of MPs.

This Branch/Region/Committee resolves:

  1. to support the Statement, and to call on branches to circulate it to members, and discuss it and pass a similar motion to this one.
  2. to encourage the discussion and adoption of this statement in institution Academic Boards, Senates, Faculty and School Boards, professional societies, etc.
  3. to set up a Convention Statement Working Group to actively promote it among local MPs, Mayors and Councillors.
  4. to support and publicise future activities of the Convention for Higher Education, see

*To provide context, the last published accounts of the Student Loan Company in 2017-18 reported total loans of £18.2bn. The Treasury estimate of the student loan write-off, ‘RAB’ factor, is at least 40% of the loan or ~£7.28bn a year (a direct subsidy from future taxpayers). Using HESA data, a 30% undergraduate fee reduction would be expected to cost less than £1.2bn (30% of fee = £2bn × 60% after write-off).

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Join the Fight for Higher Education: Stand with Roehampton

Please support this statement. You can add your name with this Google Form.

On 4 May 2020, a brutal assault on Higher Education began when the University of Roehampton announced aggressive proposals to cut jobs with the launch of a severance scheme and — significantly — a proposal to cut pay for academics and professional staff from 1st August. Subsequently there has been a further attack on our working conditions with the announcement of increases in academic workloads and the suspension of research sabbaticals. This has occurred whilst staff are continuing to deliver high quality teaching and exceptional research, as well as rapidly develop new programmes to help increase university income during the pandemic. To date, details of the university’s plan for socially distanced teaching have not been clarified, but additional labour will certainly be required to adapt our programmes. In the given context, it is clear that any cuts would be unsustainable, unfair, and would have a damaging impact on the quality of teaching and research in the university, as well as on staff health and student satisfaction.

We already know that universities are capitalising on the good will of staff, their dedication to students, and their willingness to work well beyond contracted hours, which makes these moves to undermine collective solidarity, security, and support particularly egregious. We also know that the most vulnerable among us are now facing a double attack arising from the pandemic, as well as the marketisation of tertiary education: temporary and casualised workers, migrants, disabled, women and BAME staff and students will be the most affected by cuts. Meanwhile, the highest salaries and the proportion of senior management continues to balloon, undeniably problematic in the context of dwindling resources.

The marketisation of HE continues to play a significant role in the situation that universities now find themselves. Post-92 universities like Roehampton represent a key dimension of this increasingly challenging marketplace, particularly as the government seems to pursue ideological shifts driven by ill-informed notions of vocational skill and inappropriate assessments of ‘value for money’. These moves would amplify inequalities for staff and students, including those arising from the widening stratification of teaching and research.

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Second online Convention Meeting, 23 May

Responding to the crisis II: organising to defend Higher Education in the pandemic era (continued)

Saturday 23 May, 10am – 12 noon

Over 200 colleagues met to regroup and discuss the next steps in the campaign to defend Higher Education.

  1. We heard a series of two minute reportbacks of initiatives taken by specific groups, individuals and union branches and discussed a range of strategies that can be used to resist employer attacks.
  2. We agreed a collective statement, A New Future for Higher Education, to which colleagues can add their signature.
  3. We have begun work on a more detailed document in the next few weeks that can be circulated to MPs and beyond containing our vision for HE, detailed financial analysis and concrete proposals for safeguarding HE’s role in the coming period.
  4. We agreed to call for protests on 1 June in defence of staff facing the loss of their jobs, and in solidarity with actions to Keep Education Safe by members of the National Education Union.

The notes of the meeting are published online in a GoogleDoc where colleagues can continue to contribute towards sections of the ‘vision document’.

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Online Convention Meeting Sat 9 May

Responding to the crisis: organising to defend Higher Education in the pandemic era

Saturday 9 May, 10am – 12 noon

Speakers: John Holmwood and Lee Jones (Campaign for the Public University), Anne Sheppard (Council for Defence of British Universities), Nicola Pratt (British Society for Middle East Studies), and Deepa Driver, Des Freedman and Carlo Morelli (UCU).

Access: This meeting was held on Zoom.


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Re-envisaging the post COVID-19 University – Carlo Morelli

Whoever re-envisages the university, the market is not the answer.

The COVID-19 crisis presents an existential threat to UK Higher Education. However it is one whose roots lie not with the virus, but instead in the failure of a market experiment imposed on universities since 1998 and accelerated after 2009. It is an experiment that has now brought market-focused higher education systems, particularly in the United States, Australia and the UK, to their knees, and it is one that is being paid for by unsustainable student debt blighting the lives of millions of young workers struggling to build a life after completing their education.

Despite this market failure, those currently speaking for UK HE continue to seek to rescue the market from destruction it has wreaked. Whether it is Jo Johnson, ex-cabinet Minister and brother of the Prime Minister, writing as Kings College London’s President’s Professorial Fellow or Alistair Jarvis CEO of Universities UK, pleading for a government bail-out, they cannot admit the fact that, as the Financial Times journalists Andrew Jack and Jamie Smyth point out, the business model of oversees tuition fee-based expansion is broken and unlikely to return.

By contrast an education-focused analysis of HE’s responses to the COVID-19 crisis would look to ensuring the quality of university education is maintained and increased, in order to ensure it remains attractive to future students.

The relationship between education and research sometimes strikes outsiders to HE as odd. But the current crisis has exposed the necessary integration between education and research. Higher education must continue to innovate in content. Thus an education/research-focused analysis recognise the importance of the alternative model of collaborative research that has developed in response to COVID-19. Finally, an education/research-focused analysis recognises the importance inter- and multi-disciplinarity has for solving complex social problems — not just in addressing COVID-19, but wider problems of social inequality and climate collapse.

A market-led analysis does the opposite.

  • Quality of provision is ignored in the assumption that ad hoc on-line teaching is somehow equivalent to face-to-face education. This rests on a failure to acknowledge the expertise of the Open University’s provision, which was built on decades of experience and investment. This lack of insight shows a shocking ignorance and disregard for pedagogy.
  • Calls for additional research funding focus upon demanding additional FEC levels of funding rather than ensuring the sustainability of research team expertise is the centre of attention.
  • Finally, ill-defined ‘low quality’ degrees are identified for cuts rather than recognising that many of these so called ‘low quality’ graduates are now being clapped as heroes every Thursday by the millions whose lives depend upon their skill, commitment and multi-disciplinary team working.

As the cynical saying goes, ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. The changes in Higher Education currently being discussed by Johnson, Jarvis et al. seek to protect their market system at all costs. Their strategy would strengthen market signals, drive out less profitable providers and lower costs, through the worsening of students’ education and the terms and conditions of the staff that provide it. Training replaces education, and equality considerations are abandoned over market dogma.

The HE Convention, in contrast, seeks to debate the necessity of protecting university education and research from those whose only interest is the value it can generate rather than the quality of education and research. We seek to develop a series of discussions around the future of higher education and research in the UK.

  • What form should high quality education provision take?
  • Is there an alternative to an exam-based system of learning or are other forms of educational provision and assessment possible?
  • How do we protect the critical and analytical underpinning of university education being denuded by the creation of university training?
  • How can co-operative research approaches be institutionalised and funded in the future?

Whatever the answers to these and other questions, COVID-19 tells us one thing. If the market caused the problem, more of the market is not the solution!

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