University leaders and education ministers: a balancing act?

Image courtesy of Cardiff University
Professor Colin Riordan

Colin is Secretary General and Chief Executive of the Association of Commonwealth Universities 

This article was originally published in The PIE News

As we approach the 22nd Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, taking place in London on 16-17 May 2024, it’s worth taking a closer look at the relationship between university leaders and education ministers round the globe.

Working with over 400 members in more than 40 countries across the Commonwealth, the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) is well positioned to convene vice-chancellors and education ministers around the topics that keep them up at night.

It is a fact of life that university vice-chancellors around the world – and around the Commonwealth of Nations – do not always see eye to eye with the education ministers who are responsible for the university sector in their country.

From the ministerial point of view, the v-cs always seem to be pleading for, or demanding, more taxpayer dollars for their university, their part of the sector or their pet initiative. From the university leaders’ point of view, the ministers should have more appreciation for the enormous importance of university education, research, innovation and community engagement.

All these activities, universities would contend, help the governments concerned to improve the health, wellbeing and prosperity of their respective populations. There can be differences of opinion over free speech, academic freedom, perceived political interference, even student behaviour.

But putting aside those occasional differences, more often than not universities and ministers are on the same page.

Whilst schools must often come first, education ministers are usually acutely aware of the ways in which universities support and enable primary and secondary education by producing the knowledge and expertise that the whole education ecosystem requires.

The challenge for governments across the Commonwealth is how to ensure that there is a fair and effective funding system that supports the publicly funded elements of universities, aligns with policy objectives and delivers value for money for taxpayers.

The balance between public and private funding is critical. In a system skewed towards generous public funding, universities are broadly content. The risk is that politically, it is often easier for governments to tighten the purse strings in the university sector than it is in the arenas of schools, or health.

Moreover, governments will often suspect inefficiency in well-funded systems, sometimes with justification. Where a greater proportion of the funding comes from private sources such as tuition fees, the result can be barriers to entry to higher education, inequity and crippling debt for individuals.

It is notable that according to the White House, president Joe Biden has thus far cancelled $45.6 billion of student debt for nearly one million borrowers who have been in repayment for at least 20 years, a demonstration of the clear political choices that must be made.

In making those choices it is always more effective for governments and universities to maintain an open and honest dialogue, each recognising the priorities of the other.

Every successful government wishes to foster future prosperity, a key element of which is providing for a home-grown workforce that is highly employable and equipped with the skills of the future. This is where universities come in, and through working with ministers, industry and innovators, peer into their highly informed crystal ball to assess the country’s – and the world’s – requirements in the years and decades to come.

As well as looking to the future, v-cs and government ministers are not only spotting, but developing talent. The workforce of the future needs to be composed of the widest possible range of people if the sum of the parts is to reach its full potential.

Not only is it right on grounds of fairness to ensure that universities are as inclusive as possible, but casting the net wide will mean that no talent is missed. Gender equity, disability access, anti-racism: all the measures universities and governments together can put in place to reduce barriers to higher education will improve collective prospects for the future by developing talent wherever it is to be found.

The same is true of internationalisation, and of research. While education tends to have primacy, particularly in developing countries, all Commonwealth countries aspire to improve their performance in research management. 

The innovations of the future depend on a thriving science sector collaborating closely with industry, government, and civil society: the so-called quadruple helix. Universities are key players in this arena too. Not all science is developed in universities, but the fundamental research that underlies most of the innovative products and services coming to market has its origins there.

Managing the research ecosystem effectively is a task best carried out in tandem with education policy. As Wilhelm von Humboldt said, education and research are two sides of the same coin. Entrepreneurship and skills for employability are often the product of a well-functioning system that fosters education and science in parallel, sponsored by a minster with responsibility for both.

As well as being acutely aware of the above, every ACU member university is focussed on the big themes. Sustainable development, the climate crisis, the digital divide and access in an age of AI are the kinds of cross-cutting themes that are best discussed in a forum that brings a diverse set of university leaders together in ways that allow open debate.

It’s even better if their deliberations can help inform ministers of education through a sound evidence base.

That’s why the ACU, at the invitation by the Commonwealth Secretariat, has set up the Higher Education Taskforce, which is discussing all of these matters with a view to making recommendations to the forthcoming Commonwealth Education Ministers meeting.

Vice-chancellors from the broader membership of the ACU will be gathering in London in the same week to take those discussions forward, and the results, in due course, will be presented at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Samoa in October 2024.

Dialogue between ministers and universities is always important, and must consist of much more than lobbying for improved funding. Understanding and debating the options for higher education funding is critical, but discussion of the broader questions on which our collective future prospects depend is equally important.

That is what we hope to achieve in the coming year, and it will remain a priority for the ACU into the future.