Professor Martin Jones, Vice-Chancellor and Chief-Executive at Staffordshire University, has written an open letter to the Prime Minister this week calling for help for students through the cost of living crisis and to highlight the role that our university plays in our society. Martin Jones also appeals to the PM to maintain political stability within the government after all of the changes in recent times.
Read the full letter here:
An open letter to the Prime Minister The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak
Firstly, my congratulations on your appointment to Prime Minister. After the political turmoil of recent weeks, I am relieved to see the dust start to settle on Downing Street and a more considered and realistic approach being taken to address the very real issues that affect us all. While we are all having to contend with higher food and energy bills, the cost-of-living crisis is going to hit hardest in geographical areas like Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire where incomes are typically low, there is high dependence on car usage and many people live in poorly insulated homes.
You may remember your Cabinet meeting visit to Stoke-on-Trent in May 2022, where the onus was to deliver on the public’s priorities; boosting economic growth and recovery, improving living standards and “levelling up”. It will come as little surprise that in the subsequent five months, the situation now appears far bleaker and the need to level up more urgent than ever.
It is my hope that “levelling-up” again becomes a top priority for the new administration, with more powers devolved to those working on the ground in areas like North Staffordshire, which requires substantial investment to attract high skilled jobs and regeneration. We believe that universities are central to “levelling up”, to improve the regional economy and enhance quality of life in our communities. To quote former Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli it is “upon the education of the people of this county the fate of this country depends.”
Of course, we hope some of these levelling up priorities are addressed through the Autumn budget statement, which is set to be announced on Thursday 17 November.
At the same time, we are appealing for a period of political stability, which will enable all sectors, including education, business and industry, to navigate through a difficult winter and to plan for a more sustainable future. Although we welcome your new ministerial appointments to the Department for Education, it is a source of frustration that this is fourth Secretary of State to take the department helm in as many months.
In recent months and years, the Government has perpetuated a disturbing narrative, which makes people question the value of higher education. Yet the truth is that modern universities like ours, which cover the breadth of knowledge and skills, are working tirelessly with employers to address skills gaps through higher and degree apprenticeships and bite-sized courses or “microcredentials”, which enables working people to access university level study and qualifications.
We are also developing our nation’s workforce of nurses, midwives, paramedics, social workers, teachers, and police officers who play such a vital role in our civic society and feel now is the time for Government to work with universities and properly recognise our role as “placemakers”. Of the modern university graduates working in the West Midlands, we know that almost 46 per cent are employed in public administration, education or health sectors 15 months after graduating.
Alongside the threat of strike action affecting many of our public services, we are also hearing much about the NHS and schools haemorrhaging nurses and teachers following the events of COVID-19 and so it is high time we had a comprehensive skills policy to address workforce planning issues in the longer term.
Although we also work closely with our college partners on the delivery of some courses including Foundation degrees and higher education pathways, we also require more clarity on the role that both further education and higher education plays so that we are collaborating rather than competing when it comes to the skills agenda. Key here is the operational clarity on the Government’s policy agenda for the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE).
Back to the cost-of-living crisis, and we are concerned that our students – many of whom are mature with families to support – are going to be particularly hard hit because of rising energy, food and fuel bills. Contrary to the widespread belief that most university students are 18-year-olds and supported by their parents, many of our students work alongside their study to lessen their financial burden. However, the worry is that they will now have to work additional hours or take on other jobs just to make to make ends meet. This could impact on their ability to complete their course or achieve their true potential. So, while we are doing what we can to offer practical support to our students, we are calling on Government for an immediate increase to maintenance funding for students, an immediate increase in hardship funds that can be targeted to students most in need and the better inclusion of students in wider cost of living programmes.
By not addressing these financial challenges for students, the Government risks a student recruitment and retention crisis, which could seriously undermine the work we are doing to address widening participation and to help level-up opportunities for people in our region.
Finally, I would like to extend an open invitation for you and your Cabinet colleagues to visit Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire University which, despite the enormity of the challenge, aims to be a catalyst for change, a force for social good and whose mission is to transform the lives and careers of people who study with us, so that they can help to transform their sectors and society.
Vice Chancellor, Martin Jones
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