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The impact of universities - let’s not lose sight of their wider role

Ian Morton

Ian Morton

Former Campaigns Manager
Universities UK
international students

Last week saw the launch of our new website, including a brand new section which celebrates the far-reaching impact of higher education on individuals, the economy and society at large.

It was, perhaps, a timely launch following the publication of the Higher Education and Research Bill the week before. The bill is the most significant higher education legislation for nearly 25 years, with one of its aims being to open up the market to ‘challenger institutions’.

The market has already opened up in recent years to alternative higher education providers, of course. For some, this has called into question the purpose of a university, and will do so again now. There are some concerns already that the civic role of universities may not be as much of a priority for these challenger institutions.

Universities and the local community

It may seem an obvious point to those of us who have worked in the university sector for some time, but to the average person in the street, it may not be obvious why the civic role of higher education is so fundamental. The new infographics and animations we’ve created aim to highlight some of these wider benefits. As we’ve hopefully demonstrated, universities’ cultural and social influence often places them at the heart of the local community.​



Nearly a third of students volunteer; there are more than 100 university museums visited by 4 million people a year; and universities put on more than 2 million free public lectures every year.


It is these kinds of societal benefits that risk going unremarked during the debate about the Higher Education Bill and the potential benefits of further opening up the higher education ‘market’ to new providers. Would this be part of their mission as higher education providers? Is it realistic to expect it to be? Will there be any way of ensuring that it is?

Benefits to the individual

All this being said, it is still right to continue to shout about the benefits of higher education to the individual graduate (as the new section says, universities transform lives and equip graduates with the skills to succeed). In an era of higher student fees, a degree still pays dividends, with earnings for men and women being £168,000 and £252,000 more, respectively, over a lifetime than for non-graduates – even when the costs of fees, loans and taxes on earnings are taken into account.


Although our members recognise that more still could, and should, be done to make universities even more inclusive, it is nevertheless important to recognise the effort and investment universities have already put in, over many years: since the introduction of ’top-up fees’ in 2006 we’ve seen a 65% increase in young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university. This has been a priority for universities for years, however welcome the increased focus on this agenda by the prime minister recently.


This ‘impact’ section of the new Universities UK website may not break new ground for those already well versed in UK higher education. But for those who aren’t, I hope it goes some way to demonstrating what an important and multi-faceted contribution universities make to us all – regardless of whether or not we’ve been to university.

Leave a Comment

John Sutcliffe
John Sutcliffe says:
3 June 2016 at 15:28

I’m someone who was fortunate enough to get a place at a Polytechnic (it’s now a University) when I was 35 years old. That was back in 1985, the only qualification I had was an Open University foundation level qualification.

My Computer Science HND course was funded by the government, plus I received the equivalent of £8000 per year living allowance.

I personally have benefitted greatly, not only in financial terms but in having a career as an IT professional for 27 years.

I’m convinced education at all levels should be open to everyone, not just those who can afford it.

Hopefully more initiatives like “top-up-fees” will be introduced to make higher education more accessible to all.

Keep on shouting about the benefits of a university education, it’s not just the students that gain, we all do.

Tommy Ebenezer
Tommy Ebenezer says:
4 June 2016 at 15:57

I love the new website that was lunch last week but what im i going to say here is that the going to University now is a kind of expensive but if we have a good money to pay for our self then we can get support from our parent. Let hope school fees will be cheaper ever.

Chris Walker
Chris Walker says:
1 July 2016 at 15:01

very informative, attractive and eye catchy post, thanks for sharing it.

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