This is one of my favourite days of the year. I get to spend the morning welcoming applicants to study medicine at Bristol to their interviews. It’s a great reminder for me of why I love working in HE, and it’s a massive privilege to be able to meet so many incredible, (mostly) young, highly motivated individuals as they set out on a journey that will hopefully lead to them qualifying as doctors in 6 or 7 years’ time. Getting a place at medical school is an incredibly competitive process – we received 3,700 applications for our 251 places in this round, and we will interview about 900 of those applicants as we decide who to make offers to. And this remains the case in the face of what looks like a concerted campaign to undermine the UK higher education sector.
There has been a slow drip-feed of stories over recent months that has created something akin to a hostile environment for universities. Initially, the focus was on Vice-Chancellors’ pay, and one or two outlier salaries were held up as evidence of a rotten system as a whole. This was closely followed by a succession of almost wholly unsubstantiated claims of a crisis of free speech on our campuses; with rumour and anecdote taking the place of actual evidence, to create a narrative that ‘no-platforming’, safe spaces, and ‘snowflake students’, were preventing the robust discussion of contentious ideas. Next came the double-whammy of concerns about value-for-money and claims that white boys going to new universities would end up worse off than their peers who went straight into the world of work at 18. The Augur review of tuition fees is due to report later in December, and is widely trailed as recommending a reduction in fees for subjects like English, Drama, and History; with fee levels capped for medicine, engineering and sciences. This conflation of ‘value for money’ with graduate earnings is simplistic and unhelpful. The ‘worth’ of a degree is not something that can be calculated in purely financial terms. Most recently, unconditional offers (at entry to University) and so-called grade inflation (at graduation) have come into the sights of those seeking a stick to further beat the sector with. The headlines are again dominated by claims of universities lowering standards to allow students in in the first place, and then allowing those students to leave with an undeservedly high award at the end of the course.
What has been remarkable about all of these issues is the lack of detailed empirical evidence underpinning the challenges that have been made; and the uncritical reporting of them in the mainstream media. To be clear, I’m not saying that everything is perfect in the sector; but nor is it anywhere near as dysfunctional as the current narrative might suggest. UK HE is hugely beneficial to the country, and to those towns and cities which have thriving universities. As we teeter on the edge of a departure from the European Union, and in a world that seems to be becoming less certain and more fragmented, institutions that bring people together from across the Home Nations, and the international community, deserve to be supported and reinforced.