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Higher education leaders from Australia and the UK discussed issues challenging the sector, including the political climate in the UK, Brexit, the future of education and university funding, at a roundtable dinner at UNSW Sydney on Thursday.

Mark Leach, the CEO of UK higher education think tank Wonkhe, posed some of the challenging questions for UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs and other university leaders and policy makers at the event. 

Mr Leach triggered lively discussion, drawing on historical analyses of policy debate and the perceived disconnect between universities and the local community.

“Universities in the UK are having a hard time articulating their identity and purpose amid concerns of rising fee debt and populist backlash,” Mr Leach said.

“There is a lot that universities could do to confront the critics.

“I encourage you to work with communities on the things that matter to them. Speak directly to the people that you serve, be open to change and continue to promote the benefit of research to the economy.”

Universities in the UK are having a hard time articulating their identity and purpose amid concerns of rising fee debt and populist backlash.

Professor Jacobs highlighted his recent appointment as Chair of the Group of Eight as an opportunity to take universities into the community, building stronger partnerships and highlighting the role universities play in Australia. 

“The discussion this evening has highlighted the need for our sector to be ever more effective in explaining the role of universities in making a real difference to social cohesion and economic prosperity through teaching, research and forging partnerships both here and internationally,” Professor Jacobs said.

“It was impressive to see the passion and hear the insights from participants across the higher education sector and the media. Thank you, Mark, for your thought-provoking insights and congratulations on what Wonkhe has achieved.”

Mr Leach has been visiting Australia and UNSW as a delegate of a UK Global Engagement Program, which is delivering leadership dialogues in Melbourne and Sydney. He is the founder, editor and CEO of Wonkhe (pronounced wonky), an influential think tank shaping higher education policy debate, analysis and thought leadership in the UK, with a focus on improving public policy outcomes.

UNSW is the first Australian university to partner with Wonkhe, joining a network of 25 UK universities and higher education institutions, including Kings College London, the University of Birmingham and the University of Nottingham.