From where I sit - Credit where it's due

December 22, 2011

After four years in Cairo helping to establish the British University in Egypt (BUE), I am more convinced than ever that one of my long-held beliefs holds true: the UK does not value its universities.

British industry criticises higher education and, unlike its US counterpart, does not really support it. Politicians take potshots at the sector and seem to forget it is the key to competitiveness in the modern knowledge economy. And the popular British press, I am saddened to read, seems to delight in denigrating the academy at every opportunity. Meanwhile, British higher education continuously understates its value both nationally and internationally.

In Egypt, it is widely recognised that the country needs not just a political and social revolution, but an educational one, too. To quote Hossam Badrawi, former chair of the National Democratic Party's education committee: "Education in Egypt requires nothing less than a major revolution. We must move away from demanding rote memorisation to prizing problem-solving, from valuing conformity to appreciating creativity and imagination, from desiring obedience to nurturing questioning."

Are not these precisely the values that British higher education inculcates in its students? Certainly they are the values being espoused by the BUE and its UK validating partners, Loughborough University and Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

The BUE was the brainchild of Tony Blair and the former Egyptian prime minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, now the nation's interim PM.

Opened in 2005 by the Prince of Wales, the BUE was intended, at least in part, to supply British firms investing in Egypt with the calibre of local graduates needed to compete effectively in the 21st-century economy.

Despite this, and the fact that many of the university's students could be the future political, economic and business leaders of Egypt, there has been little, if any, support from the UK for the BUE - very different from the situation in many competitor institutions.

This exemplifies, I believe, the gulf between the UK and elsewhere with respect to support for universities, whether at home or abroad. This situation needs to change. The country needs to recognise the excellence of its universities and the contributions they make. Hence it was heartening to read the recent observation by Ann Mroz, Times Higher Education's editor, that "the UK's higher education sector truly is one of the country's best exports".

It is, but is this widely and appropriately recognised and appreciated nationally? I wonder whether there ought to be a more prolonged and widespread campaign to convince politicians, industrialists, journalists and the public of the sector's importance. Other countries seem to have cottoned on to this, particularly (but not exclusively) in the Far East.

From where I sit, the UK seems intent on weakening one of its major assets, an asset often recognised by those overseas, if not by ourselves.

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