Vice-Chancellor Professor Rama Thirunamachandran explains how and why the government urgently needs to support universities with training key public service professionals.

The Covid-19 crisis has thrown a spotlight on our vital key public service workers. The nation coming together every Thursday to show their support for these professionals is one of the positive and enduring memories of this current situation. Those in professions, such as medicine, nursing, teaching, allied health, and social work will be increasingly vital as the nation begins to heal in the months ahead.

Canterbury Christ Church University started as a teacher training college in 1962 in response to a national shortage of teachers. Today we continue to shape our courses and research around critical social issues both nationally and globally. However, universities, like many other industries, will be hit financially by this crisis, placing the vital provision of, among others, medical, social work and teacher training at risk. Without further action, training capacity may well not meet future needs.

Universities need the support they have shown to the dedication of recruiting and training public service professionals to be reciprocated from the government to help meet what is certain to be increased demand for these key public servants, as we work together to rebuild Britain. 

Last week Universites UK and MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, outlined three proposals for the government’s consideration to protect and support key public service provision at universities. The proposals explicitly builds on Universities UK’s stabilisation plan submitted to the government three weeks ago, which called for investment to support university finances in the crisis and offered to work with the government to take forward “targeted support to protect and sustain courses that meet the national need for key workers”.

The proposals are:

  • supporting students and graduates to become key workers in public services, by offering a maintenance grant of up to £10,000 for all students in training, removing any recruitment caps, and providing fee-loan forgiveness for those remaining in the relevant professions for at least five years
  • strengthening and enhancing key public service HE capacity in universities by increasing the funding to the Office for Students to reflect the added costs while creating a new Public Services in Higher Education Capital Fund to enable universities to invest in simulation equipment, additional staff costs and other infrastructure
  • retaining and developing key workers in public services, by increasing general staffing budgets and creating a new professional development programme focused on enhancing skills of current key workers in public services and the new NHS volunteer reserve.

These proposals could take a major stride towards mitigating against future capacity shortfalls and go a long way to honouring the government’s election pledge to boost the NHS and help levelling up across the entire country, as, slowly but surely, Britain heals and a kind of normality returns.

Professor Rama Thirunamachandran is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Canterbury Christ Church University, and Chair of MillionPlus and a Universities UK Board member.