The world can’t wait. And neither can we.

Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Nick Jennings says universities have to showcase the breadth and depth of their impact on individuals, regions and countries if they’re to be valued as they should.

The UK’s universities are one of this country’s greatest assets. We’re educators, employers, innovators and pioneers. We shape culture and society. We’re a global sector that’s truly worth celebrating.

But increasingly of late, universities have been under fire. Changes to government policies, real-terms cuts to funding and an ongoing cost-of-living crisis have seen the media and politicians questioning almost everything we do, from the value of our degrees to the significance of our research.

No other multi-billion-pound sector is treated with such disdain.

Major contributors to society

Step away from the current narrative though and it’s hard to ignore the fact that universities make a hugely positive difference to so many aspects of society.

We provide students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in global workplaces. A report by Universities UK (UUK), the collective voice for the country’s higher education institutions, estimates that by 2035 more than 11 million extra graduates will be needed to fill jobs in the UK alone. 

We offer students opportunities to enrich their lives, intellectually, socially and financially; Government data shows that, on average, graduates earn £130,000 more over their working lives than those who don’t go to university, and they’re more likely to play an active part in society than those without a degree.

Universities stimulate economic growth. Data from UUK shows universities make a £130 billion contribution per year to the UK economy and support more than 750,000 jobs.

Through our research and innovation, we make groundbreaking discoveries that tackle major societal issues such as climate change, poverty and public health.

One such example is the Minimum Income Standard, based on research by 鶹Ƶ’s Centre for Research in Social Policy, which is now used to calculate the Living Wage paid by more than 13,000 UK employers. It has also been adopted by countries in other parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. 

A challenging environment

However, such positive contributions are occurring in spite of the environment in which universities are having to operate.

Funding per student is at its lowest level in over 25 years. In England, fees for UK undergraduates have been largely flat for a decade, meaning they’re now worth just over £6,500 in real terms. It’s just not a sustainable funding model.

Our ability to attract international students is becoming increasingly challenging. UK universities have long been the preferred choice for many international students, who are attracted by the opportunity to gain a high-quality education at some of the best universities in the world. Initiatives such as the Graduate Student Visa route – which allows international students to stay in the UK for at least two years after completing their course – have been major contributors in the number of students opting for the UK.

From January 2024, however, the families of many international postgraduate students are no longer allowed to apply to live in the UK. A further package of measures, including a rise in the skilled salary threshold and a review of the Graduate Route Visa, are due to come into effect this spring. This will have a detrimental impact on the sector. Indeed, a recent Universities UK survey found that enrolments in postgraduate taught courses at 70 universities were down by more than 40% since these changes were introduced.

In reducing our ability to recruit international students, the UK loses far more though than just the economic benefits that they and their families bring. International students make our classrooms more diverse, and they have skills and experience that complement those of our home students. They enrich our society culturally and socially and add a global perspective to our research and innovation – almost sixty percent of British university startups are founded by international graduates, according to research by venture capital firm Creator Fund.

And our home students welcome what our international students bring. Students surveyed for a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute said that studying alongside international students gave them a better world view, an improved awareness of cultural sensitivities and enabled them to develop global networks.

So if we really are to cement the UK’s position as a science, technology and innovation superpower, we need to enlist the brightest and the best from the UK and around the world.

Changing the narrative

To do that universities need to turn the tide and shape a narrative that’s truly reflective of the wide-ranging impact we have on individuals, regions and countries worldwide.

This means better sharing our stories. Telling the world about our students’ and graduates’ successes, how our research makes the world a better place, and how our innovations improve people’s lives.

Take 鶹Ƶ graduate James Roberts as an example. In the final year of his Product Design course, James set out to help premature babies by designing a more compact, simple and cost-effective alternative to conventional incubators that is able to work in challenging environments and provides flexibility to caring for newborns.

The  has now been piloted in four NHS hospitals and 75 have been sent to Ukraine, where they are being used to keep babies warm in hospitals and underground bomb shelters transformed into make-shift neonatal wards. The company estimates that between 1,500 and 2,000 babies have been positively impacted by its incubators and Ukraine’s Ministry of Health has asked for another 100.

Our Aftrak project is another great example. 鶹Ƶ’s researchers are working to provide rural communities across Africa with access to clean, green electricity to increase crop yields and the incomes of smallholder farmers who play a critical role in the continent's food and energy security and its economic growth. By providing them with access to reliable, sustainable energy and advanced agricultural tools, our aim is to transform lives, communities and the future of agriculture in Africa.

These advances happen when universities work in partnership with others. If we are to change people’s perceptions, universities need to work together more often and more effectively, combining our complementary strengths and harnessing our collective power.

That’s exactly what we’ve done for the ‘Universities as Drivers of Trade and Investment Pilot’, which involves Midlands Innovation and Midlands Enterprise Universities (which together represent 15 higher education institutions), local growth partners and government.

Its High Potential Opportunity programme in Rehabilitation is enabling investors to work with academic and clinical research centres, such as the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre and its linked National Rehabilitation Centre, the Leicester Biomedical Research Centre and the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine, to develop and commercialise rehabilitation technologies that address complex trauma and chronic conditions.

It's an initiative that will make a real difference.

Every university has these types of stories – research and innovation that are changing the world, students and graduates who are making a real difference. We need to tell them. We can’t assume that everyone knows the breadth and depth of the impact universities have on communities, economies, and lives around the world. The onus is on us to change the narrative. 

The world can’t wait. And neither can we.