Words by Laura J. Spence, Centre for Research into Sustainability, School of Management
It is not often that an event is so perfectly timed. Bedford College alumna Baroness Diana Warwick gave this year’s Sustainability lecture on Brexit and Social Sustainability in March. Within a week of the lecture, both the 60th Anniversary of the Treaty of Rome (25th March 1957) which created the European Economic Community, and UK’s decision to be the first country to withdraw from the European Union by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (29th March 2017) took place.
Baroness Warwick began her speech by noting that the unpicking of decades of treaties and legislation will draw the ‘battle-lines’ of the social, economic and environmental policies that the Government will choose to reintroduce or to change. The challenges to social policy makers, as she made clear, should not be underestimated. Drawing on the 1987 Brundtland definition of sustainability, she highlighted pertinently the position the country finds itself in at this time – the responsibility to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Unfortunately the term ‘sustainability’ has been somewhat hijacked by those seeking justifications for their own short term goals, rather than ensuring the current and future potential to meet our aspirations, revealing some deep divisions in our society.
Turning to the impact of the UK leaving Europe on higher education, Baroness Warwick described the higher education sector and how it has moved closer to the centre of Government thinking, and is a major successful industry, with the EU playing a significant contribution to this success (e.g. through EU citizen students, research funding, Erasmus, EU citizen academics). UK research, talent and student numbers are notably under threat dependent on the nature of the final Brexit deal negotiated. Implications for the sector include the need to redouble efforts to widen participation within the UK, and to collaborate between universities, further education colleges and with schools and Government to build an evidence base of what really works in widening participation. Widening the type of education – apprenticeships, vocational training, innovation and entrepreneurship – are also important, as well as their own role in enhancing regional productivity in line with the Industrial Strategy.
Housing is an important measure of our social policy. There are serious issues and challenges in this sector already but Brexit risks accelerating these problems, including the rapidly ageing population, investment in construction and adult social care. Baroness Warwick pointed out that the EU has invested large sums in social housing in the UK, targeting those areas where it is traditionally difficult to attract national funding. Increasing costs of materials from across Europe, and the acute skills shortage are important factors. She highlighted the important role that technology can play in the infrastructure around care provision.
Baroness Warwick finished with a note of optimism about the opportunity to reform our social policies for the better. A vote of thanks was given by Professor Christopher Grey of the School of Management at the College, whose own work on Brexit has received wide media attention and can be viewed via his blog.
Organised by the Centre for Research into Sustainability, the Annual Sustainability lecture has been a feature of the College’s public programme since 2010, providing a forum for the discussion and exploration of sustainability research, teaching and impact at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College. Previous topics have ranged from transport, energy, capital cities, the context of the UK’s Olympic legacy and climate change and eminent speakers have included Professor Lord May of Oxford, Professor Baroness Julia King, alumnus L Preston Bryant Jr, Shaun McCarthy OBE, The Rt Hon Greg Baker MP and Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth. A podcast of the lecture is available.
Baroness Warwick is currently the Chair of the National Housing Federation, the body representing housing associations in England. She was Chair of the Human Tissue Authority until 2014. Before that she was the Chief Executive of Universities UK for 14 years where she led the body representing the executive heads of 130 universities, both nationally and internationally. She was a Fulbright Commissioner until last year. Diana was a leading trade unionist for 20 years, and Chief Executive of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. She has also held a number of non-executive and public sector roles including USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme), British Council, Commonwealth Institute, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal. She has chaired several voluntary organisations including Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), International Students House, NCVO, she was a founding member of the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life. She has Honorary degrees from five universities. Diana was awarded a Life Peerage in 1999 in recognition of her public service.