Blog: Higher education matters – Guest post by Professor Thom Brooks

We will need our universities to thrive more than ever. Their scientists are at the forefront of finding a vaccine against the coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown have affected everyone spreading to every country. While it is welcome to see the number of deaths fall, the impact of this dreadful virus will clearly be felt in the short and longer term. Of course, many have seen close friends, family and neighbours become ill or worse. Each is a tragedy and clearly lessons must be learned soon from a full, independent investigation into the government’s handling of the crisis more generally.  

Our NHS and schools are our frontline. The courage and resilience of everyone in the health and care services sector and working with educators and children deserve a round of applause long after the coronavirus crisis is over. It is right that they are a priority, but other sectors crucially need support – and, in turn, best support our country’s efforts to rebuild.

Higher education matters. Its half million skilled staff make up one of the UK’s best global industries where British universities punch far above their weight. We will need our universities to thrive more than ever. Their scientists are at the forefront of finding a vaccine against the coronavirus – and leading the international race to protect the public’s health saving lives here in the UK, but also around the world. Universities have been producing new stockpiles of much needed PPE distributing it to the frontline helping to protect our health and care workers where they can and where there is need. 

We will get through this crisis and universities will play a central role in rebuilding our economy. These institutions are often at the heart of their local economy and frequently the largest employer. The health of our regions in economically recovering requires a thriving higher education sector. The sector adds £73 billion to the economy delivering benefits far beyond its staff and students. 

A central mission is to provide training and qualifications. As we rebuild, we will require developing skills so that individuals can go back to work in a new environment – and not only to help create a green industrial revolution. The lockdown has opened up news ways of working and connecting together that will be here to stay. The technology, skills and know how to make this a success rely on higher education to develop, maintain and progress this new future.  

However, higher education seems forgotten by the government. While they face potentially losing hundreds of millions of pounds from students deciding against coming to campuses during a lockdown, there is no relief in sight. The British Council estimates as many as half or more international students from some areas are unsure about taking up their offers. The sudden loss of income could bring some institutions to the point of collapse. This is not only terrible news for the affected students and staff, but will create large wounds in local communities that may take years to fill — and undermine both our scientific fight against the coronavirus as well as our rebuilding the economy and communities from Covid-19. 

As a proud UNISON member, I fully support UNISON’s campaign to get the government to provide our world leading universities the stability they desperately require. This funding will save jobs – and not just those in higher education, but all parts of the economy that work with universities. We can’t afford to lose our universities at this critical time. Call on the government to act and give higher education a fighting chance to develop vaccines, to support the economy and help us rebuild from the global pandemic. 

Professor Thom Brooks

UNISON’s HE campaign page