Leader: Case for change yet to convince

When bad news goes global and even good news is inconvenient, the government faces a huge challenge in pushing for reform

May 26, 2011

"Due to major funding cuts by the David Cameron government, some universities are said to be on the brink of bankruptcy while others are struggling hard to stay afloat in an increasingly market-driven education environment." That was the bleak picture of English higher education painted last week by India's business daily The Economic Times.

Universities UK reacted swiftly with a letter to counter the claims in the Indian press - all based on a single agency story - and asked for the evidence that fiscal retrenchment had plunged British institutions into crisis. But the damage had been done. News goes global fast, and trying to manage it is an impossible task: a story that is sunny side up at breakfast can be scrambled worldwide by mid-morning and then toast on Twitter by lunch.

To be sure, the government had not done much to help. It failed spectacularly to convey the facts about the impact of its new tuition fee regime on students (only this month did it start a campaign to clear up confusion that seemed to be deterring applicants, even those who would not have to pay higher fees) and on institutions, which will still get roughly the same amount of cash as before, albeit via students.

What makes the Indian coverage more galling is that UK higher education remains a huge success, something often lost in the relentless tide of headlines about turmoil. Compared with the US, the UK offers real bang for the buck. Levels of spending on tertiary education, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, may be an ocean apart (3.1 per cent of gross domestic product in the US versus 1.3 per cent in the UK) but our institutions give their US counterparts a good run for their money in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. As we stated on the publication of the 2010-11 rankings last September, the results "highlight the extraordinary efficiency of the UK sector".

The achievement of our universities is even more remarkable when adjustments are made for the US' larger population and economy, argues Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at the University of Oxford and author of a recent essay in the London Review of Books that explored the top 200 rankings to attack the idea that private universities make the US system strong and successful and to challenge the UK government's infatuation with marketisation.

In THE this week, Professor Hotson extends his analysis using information on 400 leading institutions in the THE World University Rankings database to demolish the "misapprehension" of total US supremacy in higher education. The larger context, he says, reveals the UK's strength in depth. This, he argues, is essential for the quality of research and teaching and demonstrates the value throughout a system now being saddled with a flawed policy inspired by the market principles associated with the US sector.

There is no doubt that these market ideas occupy ministerial minds. With a White Paper around the corner, the universities minister sets out in our cover story the coalition's stall for a financial shake-up that will also drive structural reforms. "The force that is unleashed is consumerism," David Willetts writes. For him, it is "harnessing the power of the student" to put teaching at the forefront again.

The question is: will the UK public and, importantly, the international press buy that?

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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