Leader: Failure is not an option

Our new rankings show the UK sector remains a global power, but it needs resources to give it and the nation a strong future

September 16, 2010

The new Times Higher Education World University Rankings are published at a pivotal moment for UK higher education. They come after the release of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's annual look at education and before Lord Browne of Madingley delivers his report on tuition fees and before the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review are revealed.

As far as these new rankings are concerned, this is Year Zero. It is not about who has gone up or who has gone down. It is about providing the most accurate picture of global higher education that we can. When we embarked on this exercise, we said that we wanted to give universities a rigorous, robust and transparent set of rankings, a serious tool, not just an annual curiosity. We believe that, with the help of Thomson Reuters, we have gone a long way towards delivering just that. For many, we will not have done enough, but this is just the start. We will consider all the feedback we receive and review and refine for subsequent years.

Much thought has gone into the methodology, with input from more than 50 leading higher education figures from 15 countries, the THE editorial board and our readers. The main criticism of all rankings is that they count what can be measured rather than measure what counts. This year, however, we have taken one small step towards trying to measure something that really does count: the teaching that institutions do.

The headline, however, is the undeniable dominance of the US. Its institutions occupy seven places in the top 10 and 72 in the top 200. Second in the world is the UK, with three institutions in the top 10 but just five in the top 50 and only 14 in the top 100.

This reflects OECD figures on higher education spending, which report that the US invests 3.1 per cent of gross domestic product and the UK just 1.3 per cent, below the OECD average of 1.5 per cent. The statistics show that money matters, but they also highlight the extraordinary efficiency of the UK sector.

The data do not, of course, convey a picture of what is happening now, with countries such as the US, Germany, France and China and its regional neighbours pumping cash into science and research and development.

Our rankings show that the UK sector is clinging on to the number-two spot by its fingertips. Reducing R&D spending will bring savings in the short term but economic disaster in the long term. As the world marches on, and other nations invest heavily in higher skills and science, the UK will be left in the shadows. It will take years, if not decades, to regain competitiveness. If - as Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, says - "cutting back on the UK's R&D base now would be the equivalent of the government cutting back on the production of Spitfires in the early summer of 1940", then these results are an air raid warning.

At last week's UUK conference, Professor Smith summed up the situation thus: "It is absolutely imperative for the future of this country that the UK remains a first-rank knowledge economy, not for the sake of universities, not even for the sake of current and future staff and students; no, the UK has to remain a leading knowledge economy because there literally is no other choice if we want to bequeath economic prosperity to our children."

It is not about throwing away 800 years of history, it is about throwing away the future.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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