Universities need to ensure that they don’t become elitist in the pursuit of stability - Joan Concannon

As everyone who works in the Higher Education sector is all too aware, the sector faces a knife edge in terms of its financial sustainability because of continued government choices in regard to international students, adverse impacts of inflation and the need to find additional funding to support students in hardship.

The latest salvo accusing universities of ‘selling immigration’ has been firmly rebutted by the report commissioned from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) by the Home Office.

My colleagues across the sector are now waiting on tenterhooks to see whether ‘common sense’ will prevail and that the government will accept the explicit recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee that the graduate visa route for international students should remain in its entirety.

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This would restore some level of stability to one of the only sources of income that universities can use to cross-subsidise loss-making teaching for UK students and underfunded research that supports innovation and job creation.

Joan Concannon is director of external relations at the University of York and director of the York Festival of Ideas. PIC: University of York/Alex HollandJoan Concannon is director of external relations at the University of York and director of the York Festival of Ideas. PIC: University of York/Alex Holland
Joan Concannon is director of external relations at the University of York and director of the York Festival of Ideas. PIC: University of York/Alex Holland

To say that it is mission critical that we find a way to bring back some form of stability to the sector feels like a major understatement.

But it’s important in all of the welter of discussion about financial stability that we remember that generating income is not for its own sake. In York our academic mission is integrally shaped around the core belief that we exist for public good - in other words everything we do delivers social benefit. Somewhere in the last few years the public discourse about the value, relevance, and benefit of higher education has been lost in a turbulent sea of white noise.

Up and down the country universities remain committed through our teaching and research to deliver for the UK. And it’s vital that we find creative and constructive ways to show our communities just what it is we do, why it matters and what difference it makes. Here’s one example of how the University of York is doing just that

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Since 2011 the York Festival of Ideas, led and coordinated by the University of York, has provided a platform for our own academics as well as those from many other universities - local and global - as well as speakers on almost every topic imaginable to come and explore complex issues in an accessible and engaging way.

Over the years we’ve attracted hundreds of thousands of people from across the world to feel comfortable in an environment that is unashamedly dedicated to celebrating the world of ideas, education and research.

Amidst all of the uncertainty that universities are now facing I was given cause to remember just why we’d set up the festival at all. In 2011 the cost of UK tuition fees trebled, thus passing a significant proportion of the cost of higher education to the supposed only beneficiary - the student.

We all know what’s happened subsequently but it reminded me about the need for us to continually engage with our community because put simply when you put a high price on what you do, you automatically run the danger of looking exclusionary, elitist and beyond the reach of ordinary people, and what felt like a realistic scenario arising from that tuition fee imposition in 2011 now feels like an even greater threat as we seek to navigate much more hostile waters.

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Our rebuttal in 2011 was to create a vehicle through which we could ‘show not tell’ how universities have relevance to everyone; that research, education and ideas percolate, influence and improve all parts of our society. And, in York, we were already seeing the evidence that small and large cultural, social and community organisations were struggling to capture attention by themselves.

We established a pilot festival in 2011 with just three local partners, delivered 24 events over six days in 2011 and attracted an audience of just under 6,000 people. The absolute red line was that events had to be predominantly free because otherwise we’d only attract the kind of middle class audience who can afford to attend festivals like Hay, Oxford and Edinburgh. Our other red line was that the festival had to be independently branded; so while the University of York has consistently led and coordinated the entire festival we knew if we branded it only as a University vehicle we would also run the danger of only attracting audiences who felt entitled to attend.

Our ethos - shamelessly borrowed from the BBC therefore - was, and is, ‘to educate, entertain and inspire’ diverse audiences. We do this through what I call ‘stealth programming’ - i.e we now work with more than 100 local and global programme partners.

By working with so many partners in effect we’re all borrowing each others’ audiences and we’re definitely more than the sum of our individual parts. In 13 years the festival is one of the largest cultural and social collaborations in the city of York; attracting audiences of about 40,000 (local and global) to about 200 free events over a 14 day period every June.

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Why am I telling you this - because there has never been a more crucial time for universities to find creative and constructive ways to use our convening power to draw in audiences with different socio-economic, cultural, ethnic and political beliefs.

Joan Concannon is director of external relations at the University of York and director of the York Festival of Ideas.

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