Broadly speaking, the relationship between the universities sector and all the political parties is pretty good. They are supportive of working with universities and higher education institutions to ensure that we have a system which is sustainable and which enables the quality of UK higher education to continue.
Yet one regularly hears rumours that at the top levels of government, universities are seen as not having been exposed to fiscal austerity to the same extent as other parts of the public sector. The view goes that while the coalition government took a formidable political hit in England by raising tuition fees, this decision to transfer responsibility for much of university funding from the public to the private purse meant that we sidestepped most of the pain.
This understandable view tells me that we still need to get better at communicating what we have been doing over the past few years. I said this in the report I wrote as chair of the Universities UK Efficiency Task Group in 2011. I believe we have got better since then, but on the eve of one of the most uncertain general elections in decades, it is worth saying that we need to keep striving to do better.
The reality is that over the past few years, we have transformed ourselves. In England alone, universities have delivered efficiencies of more than £1bn in the past three years. This has been done in numerous ways, including becoming better at using space on our estates, sharing equipment and making savings in research.
If we take equipment, England’s universities have succeeded in bringing together regional procurement agencies into Procurement England. In Scotland we have APUC (Advanced Procurement for Universities and Colleges). They now handle a large proportion of university procurement, which has allowed substantial cost savings.
There has also been a lot of success around sharing things like data centres. JISC Collections, which helps universities share online resources, has done a great job of setting up data centres and other major shared operations.
On the research front, we can point to the extent to which universities have seized on the 2010 report by Sir Bill Wakeham, the former vice chancellor of the University of Southampton. The efficiencies that it called for in research activities have led to savings of around £400m. We have now gone about as far as one can go without actually paying all the costs of research.
The future is very much around continuing to improve the efficiency of our estate, some of which will be about energy efficiency. I’m particularly excited by the new biomass plant that is to be built this year by the University of St Andrews. It will provide great energy efficiency for the university, and because it will be based in an old paper mill a few miles from the main campus, it will provide employment opportunities in an area of North Fife where there are not many at present.
The potential for sharing equipment is also really exciting. One example is the N8 group of the most research-intensive universities in the north of England. They have been leading the way by sharing all kinds of equipment. This not only benefits them in terms of costs but also can improve science because it means that scientists from different disciplines end up working in close proximity and interacting in ways that lead to opportunities in different areas.
This sort of thing is the future. The research councils and funding agencies have been very good and need to continue to be very good at prioritising shared equipment when it comes to the funding research equipment.
This is all about saving money, but it must sit within the context of enhancing the quality of UK higher education. There is no question that we are world class, but we have to put effectiveness at the heart of everything we do.
Our messages to the government and the wider public is that we are prepared to work hard to identify best practice in sharing equipment and knowledge, to save money so that we can continue to invest in the students’ experience and the range of services that we can offer them.
As we say in the latest Universities UK report on efficiency, which was published late last month, higher education’s success has been on the back of the autonomy of its estates, the strength of leadership and our ability to innovate.
It’s not my job to tell universities what to do. What we need to do is to jointly sign up to looking for areas of best practice, where there are opportunities to make efficiencies. And we need to be prepared to communicate them in a way where one can identify the sum of those savings and to demonstrate where other savings are being made.
In short, we acknowledge that we are in a period of financial austerity and we need to demonstrate that we are using every pound wisely. We always have done, but now we need to be seen to be doing that. We need to get better at telling outside our sector what we are doing. And we need to make sure we keep doing it in the years to come.