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Beyond Brexit: the UK’s chief uni voice downloads at ECU

The “very worrying” Brexit decision aside, Britain's universities share many of the same challenges as the Australian higher education sector, according to visiting Universities UK President Professor Julia Buckingham.

Professor Buckingham delivered the annual Vice-Chancellor's Oration at ECU's Mount Lawley Campus at the invitation of ECU Vice-Chancellor Professor Steve Chapman.

She is President of Universities UK, the equivalent of Universities Australia, and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University, London.

Professor Buckingham used her oration to deliver a broad-ranging picture of the university sector in the UK, sharing fascinating insights right across research, education and the social mission of universities.

She said the Brexit decision had produced a worrying time for the UK university sector because the EU model had worked exceptionally well in fostering research networks across Europe, enabling the mobility of researchers and facilitating access to the EU grants system.

“It's been a great model for our sector,” Professor Buckingham said. “Those powerful networks take a long time to develop and can be broken easily.

“The EU grants system delivered us $1.5b last year and it's fair to say that Brexit is a major threat to the UK research base.

“Beyond Brexit, we've been firmly making the case to maintain those strong links and there is certainly goodwill in those discussions. But as our former PM said, ‘Nothing is decided until everything is decided'.”

Key issues and challenges

Professor Buckingham also shed light on the following key insights on the UK and global university sectors:

  • Good research takes time. But government and decision-makers don't always understand that. The news that the UK Government will increase their investment in research to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 (from 1.7% in 2016) is welcome news, but there also might need to be a reality check on the expectations of short-term return on that investment, otherwise there'll be a backlash.
  • Research impact. The REF (Research Excellence Framework) system in the UK is similar to Australia's ERA system and has definitely made a positive impact on the quality of research. The one downside has been the impact on teaching time. When universities are measured solely on research, teaching inevitably suffers. Fortunately in the UK, the public outcry about the quality of student experience and value for money has produced a debate that has been enough to swing the pendulum.
  • Teaching quality. There is increasing pressure on universities to be more accountable about teaching skills. This is leading to more hybrid models of learning: ‘earn as you learn' education, providing meaningful work experience, degree apprenticeships, online degrees, blended learning and micro-credentials for mature-age learners. We could also do more to explore swapping credits between universities for professionals who move around for their job.
  • Teaching delivery. Today's Gen Z didn't grow up in didactic learning environments. They can't be expected to sit in a lecture of 200 people and just listen. They want a video to re-run in their own time. They want digital learning resources they can access anytime, anywhere. They want to learn in interactive small groups. I've been wowed by some Virtual Reality simulations in this space and what they can potentially deliver.
  • Focus on your strengths. There are now more universities than ever before and they can't all be all things to everyone. Universities do and should have different missions and what's important is that they individually do what they say they're doing and not just focus on how they compare with other universities.
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