Equity is the best policy

If the UK wishes its sector as a whole to be as well regarded as its elite stars, the right balance must be found in funding

April 11, 2013

It’s an enjoyable irony that one of higher education’s fiercest watchdogs, the Higher Education Policy Institute, was originally funded by the government, albeit indirectly.

The idea of successive administrations being subjected to relentless scrutiny by a thinktank they were themselves bankrolling is somehow heart- warming - even if, as Hepi director Bahram Bekhradnia reveals this week, this umbilical cord was occasionally yanked in an (unsuccessful) attempt to bring Hepi “into line”.

Bekhradnia spoke to Times Higher Education about his 11 years at the helm of Hepi as he prepares to leave the post next year.

Reflecting on the state of the UK’s higher education sector, he says he “doesn’t buy” the argument that it is the best (or should that be second best?) in the world. The evidence used to support such claims is based on a number of false premises, he argues: that research is the most important aspect of higher education; that the system should be judged on its elite institutions alone; and that overseas student demand equates to quality.

The idea of successive administrations being subjected to relentless scrutiny by a thinktank they were themselves bankrolling is somehow heart-warming

All three issues are relevant to our cover feature, our annual higher education financial health check, which is based on figures from 2011-12 institutional accounts.

One clear trend is that demand for UK degrees remains strong overseas, with international student fee income rising from £2.8 billion to £3 billion year on year. Bekhradnia is right that this does not prove quality, but there’s no denying the enduring pulling power of a UK degree (and the importance of this income).

A second clear trend is the concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite few. The 24 members of the Russell Group account for about half of total sector income.

A third trend is also visible: the overriding importance to this elite of research income, with Russell Group institutions taking £3.3 billion of £4.5 billion sector-wide.

The call for research funding to be concentrated at the top is a mantra for those in a position to benefit and, at a time of diminished public resources, they have the wind behind them. According to figures published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills this week, in 2010 the top 10 per cent of universities took 64 per cent of research council funding, 77 per cent of charitable research funding, 60 per cent of industrial research funding and 62 per cent of overseas research funding. The same institutions also enjoyed 53 per cent of mainstream quality- related research funding and 57 per cent of central government research funding.

And it’s not just in research that this momentum is to be found: as our cover feature points out, the same elite institutions are also likely to benefit from the AAB system, which has in effect moved top universities out of student number controls, while another story in our news pages highlights the concentration of philanthropic funding.

Is this healthy? Bekhradnia thinks not: “If you take the view that we need to educate all of our population as well as possible, then that would mean needing good-quality universities catering for the less able, as well as the more able.”

It’s hard to disagree, and with the economic situation stagnant, finding the most equitable and efficient way to apportion limited resources is precisely the sort of conundrum that Hepi’s unpartisan analysis must help policymakers to resolve.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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