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Do the public care about universities?

Chris Hopkins Political Research Director 06/29/2021

Conducting this research to gauge public perceptions of universities is, in one way, more than timely, following the introduction of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill recently in Parliament.

While the intentions of such a Bill can be debated extensively, what this research finds is that the public expect universities to play an important role in society on several levels, including locally, fostering a sense of pride in the communities in which they’re situated, but also in providing high-quality education to help young people thrive and contribute constructively to the UK economy.

Ultimately very few UK adults say that universities are performing badly in any of these areas besides value for money...

However, what is true of all perceptions research is that ultimately that is all they are: perceptions. While the public maybe be sympathetic to the plight of some of the issues that universities face, and they may wish for university courses to focus more narrowly on providing young people with the skills to support the UK economy, the public’s understanding of any skills deficit in the UK is, naturally, fairly poor and is ultimately driven by government and media narrative.

Universities therefore need to use their good standing locally to better promote the brilliant work that they do and to try to shift perceptions on a micro level, which may hopefully, in time, allow for a greater public perceptions change. This research shows an emphasis on ‘local’, and with universities being an ever-important part of local communities and the local economy, that gives universities a good starting point from which to improve public perceptions further.

Priorities for universities are seen primarily to be three things: providing graduates with the skills the economy needs (44%), producing world-leading science and technology research (38%), and providing value for money for students and graduates (38%). Between a fifth and a quarter of people place emphasis on collaborating with local partners (25%) and supporting local economies (20%), while enabling social mobility (12%) and supporting arts and cultural programmes (9%) are deemed less important.

There are, however, significant age differences among adults when it comes to what they see as priorities for universities. Older adults aged 55+ were significantly more likely than their younger counterparts aged 18-34 to say that a priority for universities is to provide graduates with the skills the economy needs (58% vs 28%) and produce world leading science and technology research (53% vs 24%), while younger adults were more likely to think that a university’s priorities would be to support local economies and arts/culture programmes (15% vs 4%). Interestingly, value for money was generally seen as equally important by all age groups.

Despite providing graduates with the skills the economy needs and providing value for money being seen as important, the public are less likely to say that universities perform well in these areas compared to producing world-leading research. The value for money metric ranks dead last among all those tested, with a similar proportion of adults saying that universities perform badly in this area (27%), as those saying they perform well (33%). However, younger adults are more likely than older adults to say that universities do provide value for money (37% vs 29%), indicating that those who may have been at university more recently, or whose peers went to university, are seeing more evidence of value for money than those whose university tenure may be more dated.

And while providing graduates with the skills the economy needs ranks lower down the list here than it did as a priority, it’s worth noting that ultimately very few UK adults say that universities are performing badly in any of these areas besides value for money. On the whole, perceptions of universities are fairly strong and one can probably safely assume that research from academics during the coronavirus pandemic probably had a positive impact on such perceptions overall in the last year.

Universities are also seen as major contributors locally, with providing education opportunities to local people (69%) and providing skilled workers to the local economy (67%) coming ‘top’ of what universities are seen as being contributors to. Providing and supporting arts and culture (60%) ranks near the bottom, and while that could be because people are less interested, or because people do not see it as valuable or important, there may also be a public disconnect with the role that universities play in supporting local arts and culture.

Again, it is younger people that are more likely to see the contribution universities have towards arts and culture (69% 18-34 vs 55% 55+), and are also generally more likely to see universities as contributing in all ways compared to older people. We are seeing, even in this study, something of a cohort effect, with more younger people and their peers possibly seeing (or still feeling) the positive impact of their own studies, compared to older generations who were less likely to attend themselves or may have simply forgotten the impact their university had on them.

Further disdain for arts and culture is seen when the public are more likely to say universities should offer fewer (23%) of these courses than more (18%). It’s likely that these aren’t seen to be contributors to the economy or wider society in the same way that, for example, medicine and engineering are, and therefore perhaps universities need to do more to bridge that perceptions deficit. Only slightly more worthwhile than creative arts courses in the public’s mind are humanities courses (21% more vs 16% fewer).

It is perhaps no surprise to see the public desiring more medicine (58%), nursing (55%), sciences (51%) and engineering (49%) courses, partly because of the story of the last year, but also partly because of how the government narrative around the UK economy shifting towards new forms of manufacturing, engineering and industry has created, in the public’s mind, a gap that needs to be plugged by new graduates. There is an underlying sense in this research that the public don’t believe that universities are set up to fuel the needs of the UK economy.

But half (51%) of people do feel proud to live in an area with a local university, and just one in ten (10%) do not (with a third (32%) saying they’re indifferent). Perhaps it is this pride that reinforces what assets universities are to their local communities, but the onus will still fall on the institutions themselves to communicate this better to improve overall public perceptions.

Data tables for the research can be found here.

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