Strengthening Relations between Higher Education and Society


Alice Konig

Senior Lecturer in Latin and Classical Studies, University of St Andrews

TL;DR: Covid-19 has disrupted Higher Education models and practices, exacerbating the challenges which the sector already faced. We should take advantage of this to re-think systems and structures and strengthen the relationship between HE and society. 

Months before the outbreak of Covid-19, the Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) was planning a series of debates  to discuss how the Higher Education sector should adapt to meet the changing needs of an increasingly unpredictable future. Little did we imagine just how unpredictable 2020 would be. The pandemic forced us to cancel our first two debates, but we rescheduled and ran them online with an increased sense of urgency, as lecturers all around the world were wrestling with the challenges of delivering Higher Education to widely dispersed students in all sorts of new ways.

Our findings from these discussions are helping to inform a wider RSE/YAS project on Tertiary Education Futures, which will feed into the RSE’s Post-Covid-19 Commission. One of YAS’s priorities is to amplify the voices of those working in Higher and Further Education such as tutors, lecturers, researchers and technicians. Unlike managers and funding bodies, these people are rarely given much input into Higher Education reform; but their first-hand experience of pre- and mid-Covid challenges gives them unique insights into the opportunities and barriers ahead of us.

While Covid-19 has imposed new stresses and strains, it is clear that serious threats to the UK’s Higher Education system have been building for a long time. Our debates have surfaced two in particular. The most significant is the impact of the increasing marketisation of HE, a trend widely accepted as inevitable – as the sector’s only way to survive financially, even – until Covid-19 exposed the fragility of a funding model based heavily on international income and the tuition fees of a potentially shrinking number of home students. The second is the lack of understanding of the social value of HE/FE and its importance to society beyond graduate employment outcomes.

Marketisation poses multiple threats. The imposition of (frankly dated) ‘new public management’ and ‘for-profit’ business models has resulted in top-down management styles which increase bureaucracy, reduce the appetite for risk, constrain creativity and slow innovation down. When universities have to vie for students in an increasingly competitive marketplace, resources get diverted into branding, campus-one-up-manship and a focus on league table positions. Competition between institutions can sometimes drive positive change, but it also encourages institutional protectionism, stifling collaboration and limiting resource- and expertise-sharing – the very things that progress learning. With the reinvention of students as ‘customers’ and the courting of a wide range of international markets, staff have found themselves wrestling not only with increasingly high workloads but also with worrying threats to their academic freedom, prompting a new code of conduct to drafted by a group of concerned academics to drive change from the bottom up. Above all, there is a growing tendency to value HE in purely economic terms: for example, league tables regularly rank universities according to graduate earnings, using simplistic metrics that overlook the less tangible contributions that universities make to society; and politicians and governmental reviews of HE commonly suggest that universities are (only) worth investing in because they ‘drive economic growth’. These attitudes tend to devalue some disciplines (particularly Arts and Humanities subjects) at the expense of others; and they run the risk of re-defining lecturers as mere trainers of a future workforce rather than as educators in a broader sense, compromising their sense of identity and purpose.

This narrow perception of the immense social value of HE and FE both stems from and contributes to another major challenge which has emerged during our debates: a sense of disconnect between HE/FE and society. Universities are regularly pilloried by politicians and the press for not offering ‘value for money’ either to students or taxpayers. These criticisms usually revolve around the perceived role of the university to improve graduate employment outcomes, meet the UK’s ‘skills needs’ and/or boost economic productivity. While not all press coverage is negative, some (such as this article, which asks ‘whether a university is a scholarly retreat, a national investment, or a finishing school for the aspiring rich’) focuses on costs and not on the wide package of social and educational goods which Higher Education offers. While a recent poll suggests that the public generally feels positive about UK universities, this kind of commentary helps to engender a sense of divide between THEM (the so-called ‘ivory towers’ of Higher Education) and US (the rest of society, which funds THEM). Among other knock-on effects, it has serious consequences for the public’s engagement with science and expertise, which (as a recent YAS blog post explored) is especially concerning during a pandemic. It also plays against the Higher Education sector’s strenuous efforts to widen access, inevitably factoring into the financial decisions which some applicants make, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds for whom the financial commitment is particularly daunting.

The narrow focus of criticisms that Higher Education should be more vocational ignores both the fundamentals of university education and the requirements of the future society and indeed the future job market. The goal of Higher Education should not be to produce ‘job-ready workers’. Its aims go far beyond that: to create independent thinkers who are able to adapt to the rapidly changing world they will live (and work) in. While skills are important, the purpose of Higher Education should be to build in participants the capacity to adapt and change both themselves and the world around them.

Participants at our debates made it clear that, far from teaching and researching in (mythical) ‘ivory towers’, most lecturers’ sense of identity and purpose is based strongly around a belief that they are making important and lasting contributions to society. This is only likely to become more true, as universities around the world respond to increasing numbers of global emergencies: not just Covid-19 but climate change, increases in climate-related migration and conflict, growing scarcity of resources, and marginalisation of disadvantaged communities and ethnic groups. A recurring topic in our discussions has been the increasingly ‘mission-oriented’ approach of some Higher Education courses, with students taught to apply interdisciplinary approaches to help solve real-world problems. As Carl Gombrich (Director of Teaching and Learning at the ground-breaking London Interdisciplinary School) put it, ‘universities are about learning to do work of value to others’, educating people – ‘citizen scholars’ – to become leaders with values. When it opens next year, the LIS will offer degree programmes that are not tied to specific subject areas but instead combine arts and science disciplines; it will also offer some community-based learning, helping students to engage with businesses, industry and the public sector throughout. Closer to home, students at the Edinburgh Futures Institute will soon be able to take ‘courses to meet the challenges of the future’, working with industry and local communities as well as academics.

Covid-19 has opened our eyes to the urgency of more work of this kind, alongside traditional and equally valuable discipline-specific teaching and learning. It has also alerted us to the urgent need – and opportunity – for significant structural and systemic change, to facilitate the kind of vision of Higher Education which many practitioners have. As we look to secure the future of the UK’s Higher Education sector in a post-Covid-19 world, we urge the following changes:

  1. Staff need less bureaucracy and more time. Much bureaucracy is about accountability and functions on the assumption that accountability must be assured. Universities should harness the digital recording and mass communication opportunities accelerated by Covid-19 to make accountability and auditing possible through openness and inclusion rather than through burdensome reporting and assurance procedures. Reducing bureaucracy is vital in addressing rising staff workloads; it will also free up staff to spend more time on creative thinking, collaboration and continuing professional development, all of which underpin high quality Higher Education.
  2. The structure of decision-making in institutions should be decentralised, to reflect and draw on the expertise of teaching and research staff; it should also be based around the participation of students and the wider community in a co-production approach. This will mitigate against risk-averse, financially-focused thinking and empower staff to design and deliver educational experiences that are of value to society in multiple ways. By adopting a robust engagement model that reaches out, Higher Education can move from being something that traditionally happens in closed institutions to a society-wide purpose. This makes the case for more public funding as part of the post-Covid future, where scientific knowledge is more highly valued and directly informs citizen-led decision making.

3. We need to change the public narrative about Higher Education so that it better reflects what universities already contribute to society. Media reporting and political debate focus too heavily on economic trade-offs, and often isolate graduates as the main beneficiaries of HE while under-representing the wide-ranging benefits for society at large. University managers, funding bodies, national academies and learned societies should use their platforms more collaboratively and consistently to address this, so that HE policy-making and public perceptions are based on a more holistic picture of what HE does. The economy is only one part of what Higher Education can improve. We know from the Scottish Enlightenment that a society which values all kinds of learning can flourish, but we need to get better at communicating the ways in which today’s universities drive that flourishing.

4. We should talk more about academic freedom. As Higher Education is increasingly sold/invested in as a commodity, we not only risk losing sight of the principle that knowledge is a common good; we also expose our research and teaching to commercial and international pressures that might curtail the scope of our inquiries. It is vitally important for society that HE staff and students retain the freedom to ask difficult questions, pursue independent research and make evidence-based arguments without interference from (e.g.) partisan donors or hostile states. The move to online teaching during the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges, leading for example to increases in self-censorship among students and staff when class members are based in countries with limited freedoms or significant cyber surveillance. HE managers and national academies should play a more prominent role, alongside frontline staff, in championing the critical importance of academic freedom both nationally and globally; but the sector also needs to commit to stronger protective measures, such as the use of ‘values statements’ and codes of conduct when new commercial and international partnerships are negotiated, data collection to monitor academic freedom globally, and mechanisms for holding managers and institutions to account where academic freedom is eroded or threatened.

Higher Education will always be at the forefront of responses to global crises like Covid-19, but as we look ahead to a post-pandemic future we should not forget the less visible contributions it makes to society day-to-day. Public investment in Higher Education is one of the best ways of investing in everyone’s future. The HE sector will face many challenges in the years to come, but the disruption of Covid-19 presents opportunities for imagining new ways of doing things. We must seize on these opportunities if we are to avert the threats outlined in this blog and better support HE staff to fulfill their mission: to continue enriching society through all sorts of learning.


  1. Our first debate focused on the purpose of HE in a post-Covid world; our second discussed HE curricula that benefit society. We also ran a workshop on the involvement of students in co-design of HE curricula at the Creative Bravery Festival.