An interview with Mark Leach

Mark Leach is Founder, CEO and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe. Mark joined Middlesex University’s Board of Governors in 2019.

How do you see the UK sector and its position in the world today?

The UK punches above its weight when it comes to higher education. The system that we have in this country has been massively influential and this is one of the reasons why we’re able to attract international students.

The UK sector is a very diverse system as well and that’s quite different to a lot of other higher education systems, particularly compared to Europe.

Britain’s soft power is not insignificant. There is this massive history of peaceful international links, cultural and education exchange with countries all over the world, which makes Britain attractive to people who want to be international citizens.

What are the challenges you see facing higher education in the next 10 years? And how should institutions seek to adapt to the challenges ahead?

One of the great challenges we have as a system now is the booming number of 18 year olds coming in. There is a risk that essentially there isn’t the capacity to take on all of the prospective students who want to come into higher education. Assuming demand holds up (and if anything it’s increasing), we’re in danger of a system where, after all the gains of massifying higher education, it starts to become an elite system again.

What we should be doing as a nation is saying, “we need to be building new universities, we need to be opening higher education opportunities, left, right and centre.” But we’re heading in exactly the opposite direction with this government, where it’s trying to pass off different bits of the sector into further education, or trying to change what higher education is and to point it towards a broader tertiary agenda. This won’t do for those 18 year olds who’ve been told that university is the next step for them. Ultimately there will be people who want to do a full time undergraduate degree, particularly one that’s campus based. And the big challenge for the higher education sector is how it works together to meet that need and get itself ready for the 2030s.

How can the sector prepare and work together to prepare for the demographic boom?

One of the learnings, not just from COVID, but the last several years of the drip, drip of money leaving the system is that it’s not very efficient. We obviously don’t have the luxury of designing it from the ground up, but it seems to me to be fairly obvious that universities could collaborate much more closely to design, learning and skills needs of local, regional and international populations.

I went to Australia recently and they’ve got about a third of the amount of universities with three universities in Melbourne with 100,000 students each. They’re able to get all sorts of economies of scale by working on such a large level as their buying power is immense. It means that they’re able to put things into their innovation pipeline and do things for students that are just much more expensive for lots of little universities.

What do you think the Government narrative on vocational education means for the future of the sector and its relationship with that part of the education system?

Things have been bad in higher education but it’s been absolutely terrible for the further education sector for a long time and they’ve had shake-up after shake-up and each one has taken that sector to a worse and darker place. Further education should be delivering all sorts of important things for people who need them, and for businesses that want to train their workforce in areas where universities don’t traditionally have the expertise.


I think it’s obviously right for universities to adapt their models of delivery to government policies. Where this gets thorny, of course is if the government is taking money away from higher education and giving it to further education. As part of the downgrading of higher education which we’re likely to see an acceleration of by Government there’s a danger that those universities who are collaborating with FE, out of pure prejudice and misunderstanding of the tertiary education  landscape, are boxed into a corner and devalued by Government. Having said that, I definitely wouldn’t suggest not embracing the agenda. At Middlesex we can see how there’s a demand for collaboration with further education – we can see a route to delivering it well, we can see how it enhances our mission, we can see how it’s good for a local community – but I think the motivations of Government have to be factored in when it comes to thinking about what to do here.

As a relatively new member of the Board of Governors, what are your impressions of Middlesex?

I’ve been very, very impressed with the dedication of everyone that works at Middlesex. I’ve been really impressed with the quality of debate and leadership around the big questions.

The University has clearly suffered from changes of strategic direction over the years. One observation I would make is that there’s far more baggage than there should be given there are lots of really forward-thinking people with a really exciting agenda at Middlesex. I see decisions made a long time ago that are holding things back and it’s a real shame because I’m keen to shake off all that historical baggage. There are lots of really forward thinking people at Middlesex trying to do that and doing that every day. We need to make decisions about the future based on the facts today, what students need today and where the university is going, and what its place in the world is.

How do you think the pandemic has affected students in terms of their experience at University and their hopes for the future?

The new cohort this September have clearly had a terrible year. This creates a particularly important role for any staff that have that direct interaction with students on the front line. I think we’re going to depend on those colleagues so much because it’s absolutely critical at a strategic level to understand this question and understand the lives, motivations and experience of the pandemic, and how it’s affected students entering university now in the midst of a global recession with job prospects looking as weak as it ever has been and then having had potentially quite a traumatic few months. With the Government looking to review and potentially downgrade the National Students Survey (NSS) there’s also a need to think about what metrics and tools universities will use to understand what’s going on with students at a time when the need has never been greater.

The work on commuter students at Middlesex a couple of years ago was really seminal and comes up all the time to inform thinking at the University. A similar sort of piece of thinking about the COVID generation of students would be really valuable.

Looking ahead to the student of 2030, who is that student and how might a university like Middlesex adapt to their needs?

There’s a few mega trends that I think are important. Online learning and microcredentialism, for example. Where I depart from a lot of people is the notion that the traditional university is dead and the whole thing can be online. The demand for the full time undergraduate on-campus experience remains strong because students get all sorts of other social things from being with their peers in real life, social activities, clubs and societies, learning resources, emotional support, friendships etc. It offers a rounded experience and not just for 18 year olds who want to live on campus. I think demand for that kind of wide university experience will stay strong and I’m very cautious of throwing the baby out the bathwater. There’s a danger of playing into the government’s agenda where you start to see a degree as less important and something you can do on a subscription basis, like Netflix.

Could we be doing more to help people into higher education or to move between universities, between types of courses, between higher education and further education? There are plenty of approaches, like credit transfer systems or making it more modular, that could be deployed to make higher education more flexible, adaptable to people’s skills, open and accessible without unravelling the degree.

How can Middlesex University contribute to the sector and Government’s research agenda?

There are lots of people who would argue that research should only exist where there’s been previous examples of excellence before and we’ve got a credit constraint system that essentially does that. But there isn’t any evidence to suggest that’s actually a good way of funding a research system.

If the University is serious about this agenda it’s going to have to forge its own path. I think the practice based approach makes a lot of sense. This links, perhaps, to the civic questions, as well as where universities can align with people’s experience, needs and struggles and find solutions to them. Research is quite inaccessible to people. If it was thought about more almost in a campaigning way – for example, what are the causes to align ourselves with? what are the problems in society that need solving? Starting with these kinds of questions and how we can fit with the Government’s research agenda could be extremely powerful.

What are your views on Middlesex’s international presence and global profile?

Middlesex has a really strong reputation in particular markets around the world but that hasn’t been leveraged enough. It seems obvious that there’s more to do there.

I think the international presence is good because it should be able to add richness to the overall offer, particularly as students can move around and experience things in different parts of the world.

Our process

Four key phases to developing our new strategy:


  1. Ideas generation, visioning and planning for the development of the consultation website and paper
  2. Engagement on the consultation with staff, students and stakeholders to develop ideas and refine our thinking into an enhanced proposal paper (Autumn 2020)
  3. Testing and consultation on the proposal paper to develop final strategy documentation (Winter 2020-21)
  4. Drafting, approval and design of MDX 2031 Strategy (Spring 2021)


Explore our strategy

Our strategic priorities and focus >

Download Strategy summary >

Download Strategy in full >

Got more to say?

We’d love to hear from you at [email protected]

Engage with our strategy


These ideas are a starting point – now it is over to you. Have some fun and tell us what you think of this proposal.


Shape the strategy >