Higher Education: a crisis of confidence? Sir David Bell KCB – Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Sunderland

About The Speaker

Sir David Bell (HF 93-94) is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland and Vice President (England and Northern Ireland) for Universities UK (UUK). He was previously VC at the University of Reading for six years. His career started in teaching, leading to a headship, posts in LAs as Director of Education and CEO, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools and then Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education. Sir David is a trustee and advisory board member of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a trustee of RFK Human Rights UK.


If modern British higher education has a literary canon, then the Robbins report is the seminal text. Even though it was published nearly sixty years ago, its philosophy has echoed down the decades. Indeed, I often think of Robbins as the – albeit non-legislative – equivalent of the 1944 Education Act in providing a framework that endures to the current day.

The animating, and eponymous, principle was that university places ‘….should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment’. Policy changes over the years, far from resiling from that position, have done much to realise it; everything from the creation of new universities in 1992, through the Blair government’s ambition that 50% of 18 year olds should attend university, to the Coalition government lifting the cap on student numbers.

Emeli Sandè, newly installed Chancellor of Sunderland University with Vice Chancellor Sir David Bell Picture: DAVID WOOD

In every sense, I am a child of Robbins. My own personal story is, in many ways, a living example of the changes brought about by the expansion of higher education. I recall illustrating that in 2009 when I was then the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education (it did have a different name then). I looked back 50 years to when I was born and contrasted my background with my predecessor in 1959.

Sir Gilbert Flemming, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Education, was the son of doctors, who had been educated privately, like every other permanent secretary of the time. By way of contrast, my mum and dad left school at 14. I was born and brought up in a Glasgow council house and attended one of the largest comprehensive schools in Glasgow. I was one of around 19% of the population who went to university in 1977 and I began my working life as a primary school teacher in the south side of Glasgow, aka the Gorbals.

One personal anecdote does not, of course, make a case. However, it is illustrative of the quiet social revolution that has come about since the 1960s and which has, despite many imperfections still, made our country a more open and less hierarchical place.

University of Sunderland City Campus

That work continues today as 40% of the 18 year olds starting in my current university in Sunderland will be first-in-family to enter higher education (against a national figure of around 15%), with many of them coming from low higher education participation neighbourhoods (and our university has the highest percentage of such young people in the country).

Of course, it has not always been plain sailing for higher education in this country since the 1960s. Funding pressures in the early 1980s had a severe impact on our international competitiveness. The predominance of the Oxbridge perspective in the eyes of politicians and policy makers often skews understanding of the rich diversity of the British higher education system.

Various tuition fee rises – most notably ahead of 2012 – proved to be deeply controversial and there has always been a debate about the appropriate balance between teaching and research in our universities (and, oft-forgotten, one of Robbins’ key objectives for universities was that they should ‘……maintain research in balance with teaching, since teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth’).

But despite all of that, our universities were seen as a ‘jewel in the crown’, a feature of national life that was genuinely world-beating. While not absolutely immune from criticism, there was a certain deference shown to universities as places of learning, and vice-chancellors as individuals. And little attention was actually paid to what happened inside the walls of academia as the alternative would have involved encroaching on the sacredness of institutional autonomy.

Fast forward to this, the second decade of the 21st century, and the picture is very different. And that is despite – and, some might say, is because of – the creation of a funding system post-2012 that was intended to put universities – in England at any rate – on a more secure financial footing.

The litany of complaints is long and wide ranging. Insufficient time and attention to teaching quality and hours, particularly in the arts and humanities. Fee levels that do not represent value for money (and with the added ignominy of a loans system that is widely perceived to be unfair). Excessive growth in numbers in some places leading to a poorer student experience. Poor progress on access, particularly when it comes to our more elite institutions. High salaries for vice-chancellors that have attracted widespread public opprobrium.

The list goes on. And whether these criticisms are fair, either in whole or in part, the policy response has been significant. For the first time in England, we now have a regulator for universities – the Office for Students – whose chief executive was quoted, very early on, as saying to universities, ‘We’re not your friends’.

There has also been the advent of the Teaching Excellence Framework with the explicit aim of improving teaching and student outcomes. There have been interventions from universities’ ministers (although it is hard keeping up these days with who actually is the Minister!) on issues as varied as degree inflation, student mental health, admissions to universities and black and ethnic minority achievement.

So, why have we ended up here and have universities, deservedly, brought this all upon themselves? Well, as I alluded to above, the more secure financial position we found ourselves in, post-2012, certainly fuelled a sense that we had ‘dodged’ austerity. And worse than that in the eyes of many, universities were spending the additional money on new facilities for students, with cranes ubiquitous in campuses across the country.

Then, there were issues where we were seen to be slow to react. Contact hours between students and staff, while more complicated than the rhetoric suggests, was an example of where we didn’t move fast enough to explain concerns, too often dismissing them as middle class dinner table gossip. The lesson here is that we have to be ahead of the curve in identifying issues that are causing concern, deal with them or, at the very least explain them better.

HRH Princess Royal attends the launch of the Sail Training Ambassador programme at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland Picture: DAVID WOOD

I think too we were just caught up in the whole ‘revolt against the elites’ moment, despite the fact that amongst major professions in the UK, the backgrounds of vice-chancellors are much more socially diverse than almost any other senior occupational group.

There is, I am sure, a Brexit factor. Vice-chancellors largely came out in favour of remaining in the EU and that made us an easy target when it came to arguing that our institutions were, too often, out of touch with their localities (ironically, one of the least fair and justifiable criticisms in my experience). It undoubtedly too added fuel to the fire when it came to vice-chancellors’ pay.

The whole issue of ‘too many people going to university’ rumbles in the background, usually on the political right, although less than it did in the past, despite the recent Augar report on post-18 education and funding resurrecting the issue in a different guise.

It is also worth noting that, whether as a cause or a consequence, both media and political opinion turned significantly against universities, where they had previously been highly sympathetic.

On the left, the charge was that we were ‘fat cats’ and had been complicit in a system that was ripping off students. The Corbyn offer of free higher education, while overstated in terms of its impact on the 2017 general election, did contribute to a more negative atmosphere for universities.

On the right, as I have already suggested, concerns around value for money and efficiency became more and more prominent. All of the political noise led to newspapers declaring ‘open season’ on universities, with us blamed for everything from the decline in mental health, through our role in failing to react quickly enough to skills’ requirements, to being responsible for creating a ‘snowflake’ generation.

Yet, for all of that, I remain positive and optimistic. While we may not be untouchable, which was never a good thing, I think that we can regain territory and trust. Why?

Well first, in a post-Brexit Britain, the nation needs goods and services that are exceptional, both in terms of trade and influence. Universities fit the bill, supporting almost a million jobs and contributing £95bn in gross output for the UK economy.

Recent welcome announcements such as the two-year study visa for international graduates demonstrates that government see universities being part of the solution. This is really important as the UK is a very attractive places for international students already, despite relatively high tuition costs.

Second, and as shown by the OECD recently in its Education at a Glance report for 2019, the returns from UK degrees, while down somewhat on recent times, are still impressive, and the cause of the decline is not a general problem but reflects challenges at the margins – for example, with some courses, but certainly not all.

Related to that, the OECD work shows that graduates from tertiary education do more lifelong learning than others. In other words, ‘learning begets learning’, something that will be very important as our economy necessarily has to adjust in the period ahead. It also helps that people complete their studies in the allotted time more often in the UK than in any other OECD country.

Third, our basic model works, particularly on the research front. The UK approach of institutional autonomy, academic freedom, competition for funding and collaboration among peers has generated a higher education system that, by any measure, is among the most successful in the world. While we don’t understand completely what the exact calibration should be between and amongst the component parts, we mess with any single element at our peril.

Fourth, there remains a fundamental appetite for higher education (and this was something that the Augar utterly failed to understand with its proposals that would have, in effect, capped aspiration for many people at further education level – the cynic in me always thinks that it would be other people’s children that would be affected by such a policy position).

I can see this vividly in my own institution as I mentioned earlier. And despite all the noise about how young people are put off higher education by the current fees regime, yet again this year, we have had record numbers of 18 year olds entering university in England.

Interestingly too, as the OECD pointed out, relative to other countries with high private spending on higher education (such as Japan and the US), our university system performs better on access. Yes, much still to do on that front but, again, we are making progress.

More generally, student satisfaction with life at university remains high; the latest National Student Survey, published last month, found that 84% of students were satisfied with the quality of their course – ‘customer’ satisfaction numbers that many businesses would die for.

And, of course, evidence shows that having a degree means that graduates are less likely to be unemployed, less reliant on social security and use fewer NHS resources. They are also more likely to be engaged in civic and community life.

My final ground for optimism takes me back to where I began on the subject of social mobility because, arguably, this is where we can make the most powerful argument about the value, and values, of higher education.

Yet, too often, discussion of social mobility focuses on students, usually 18-year-olds, from poorer areas having the opportunity to move away to attend high-tariff institutions – quite possibly never to return. But conflating social mobility with regional mobility risks masking the crucially important work that more locally-focused universities play in enhancing their students’ life chances.

This July, for example, my university saw through its first cohort of nursing graduates. They all live locally and vary in age. Many have family, work and life commitments that mean they can’t just get up and leave, even if they wanted to. But every one of them has improved their life chances significantly by acquiring a highly valued professional qualification – and all of them have secured nursing jobs locally.

Paramedic students at Sunderland University Picture: DAVID WOOD

Or what about teachers? A full 97 per cent of Sunderland’s initial teacher education graduates stay in the north east. It would be a disaster for the region if they didn’t.

Data show that in 2017-18, just 31 per cent of people working in Sunderland were employed in professional or managerial roles, compared with 39 per cent for the wider region and 46 per cent across the UK as a whole.

If post-Brexit Britain is to be a success, more people in places such as Sunderland need to be available to work in such roles, and not to think of themselves as failing to ‘get on’ if they stick around after graduation. And the university in a place like Sunderland is absolutely crucial as the city seeks to navigate its way through these turbulent times. Indeed, I often say that if the University of Sunderland, did not exist, someone would have to invent it.

And here’s another example. The very fact that Sunderland has, this September, opened a new medical school is testament to the government’s recognition that there are so-called ‘cold spots’ for doctor retention, not least in specialisms such as general practice and psychiatry.

Now as someone who has had a highly mobile career in the UK and beyond, I realise that I might be accused of pulling up the ladder of opportunity after me in suggesting that students should stay local. To be clear, I would be the last person to deny others the right to choose where they live and what they do. I see too the risk of mobility as being the preserve of the wealthy, further exacerbating social divisions. I recognise as well that the concept of education is connected to the idea of widening horizons and moving beyond your previous experiences.

However, and perhaps this is particularly pertinent for those of us who have been Harkness Fellows, our highly mobile lifestyle is not the norm. All of us, I am sure, have worked with and lived beside people just like us but, again, we are the minority. You don’t have to buy the whole ‘citizens of somewhere/citizens of nowhere’ rhetoric to think that we have not paid enough attention to the value of people going to university in the places they were brought up.

A lot of the existing evidence on the rich social mobility experience of graduates who stay local is powerful but largely anecdotal. We do need harder data to improve our understanding of the life premium added, for both the individual and the community.

But we all know that allegiance to home, family, community and place can be more powerful motives than a rootless pursuit of ‘opportunities’ and salary hikes. So having the local, the national and the international in better harmony may end up being the biggest task ahead for UK higher education.

See more about the University of Sunderland here