Across the world, public support for our universities is in question

Phil Baty addresses the THE World Academic Summit 2016, and raises some fundamental questions about how higher education is viewed worldwide

September 27, 2016
Phil Baty, Times Higher Education World University Rankings

This is an edited transcript of a speech by Phil Baty, Times Higher Education rankings editor, which was made at the launch event of the 2016 THE World Academic Summit in Berkeley, California.

In a room like this, full of the leaders of the very best institutions in the world, it seems so, so easy to make the case that our great research universities are the most powerful force for good on the planet.

Take the University of California, Berkeley – just one great institution among many here, who I would like to thank profusely for hosting this third World Academic Summit. Since its foundation in 1868, Berkeley has been responsible for so many discoveries and breakthroughs of such profound benefit to human kind, I can mention now just a fraction: the birth of nutrition science; the development of the flu vaccine; the foundation of the biotech industry; huge steps forward in the fight against breast cancer; world-changing developments in the treatment for malaria; work on robotic legs that has helped millions of paraplegics to walk again.

Berkeley even invented the wetsuit – perhaps not such a great invention for those of us lucky enough to live here in California, but believe me as a Brit, from a northern English village very close to the North Sea, I know only too well what a contribution to human wellbeing that has been.

So that’s just a fraction of the world-changing achievements Berkeley has been behind in under 150 years. And that all happened at the same time as Berkeley was educating hundreds of thousands of students, providing the critical thinking and problem-solving skills essential not just for thriving economies but for healthy societies. Berkeley has truly lived up to its founders’ vision to develop an institution that would “contribute…to the glory and happiness of advancing generations”.

So, it seems self-evident – from just one case study among the scores of great institutions across the world – that great research universities make the world a better place. And yet, across the world, the public support for our universities – society’s finest assets – seems to be in question.

Taxpayers, in general, egged on by governments, seem less willing to pay for university teaching, with more of the cost burden placed on the individual. This promotes the idea of a university education as nothing more than a private good, through personal success factors such as a higher salary, rather than as a collective good, through a strong economy, bountiful tax returns and a healthy democracy, for example.

Governments across the world, particularly in the West, are also squeezing research budgets, and attaching ever tighter strings to the money they do provide – demanding short-term impact at great risk to the academic freedom required to make the truly groundbreaking and world-changing discoveries, or steering enquiry away from certain fields. Some politicians are openly challenging and even ridiculing research projects where they personally can not see some obvious, immediate benefit, despite the longer term benefits to society.

So this conference has a particularly important role. We have gathered together the leaders of the world’s finest universities, from across the continents, to share new ideas, to learn from each other’s good practices, to debate the way forward and forge new alliances to help us along the way.

But this event has also been designed to celebrate – and to champion – the unassailable role of universities in making the world a better place.

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