Leader: Fortune will favour the brave

Changes ahead on the higher education horizon may prove the making of some institutions and the breaking of others

October 7, 2010

"The opportunities for higher education are greater than ever."

Such a claim, from a team of management consultants, is eyebrow-raising at a time of unprecedented uncertainty about the size, shape and even the future sustainability of UK higher education. Some will find the assertion, which PA Consulting makes in our opinion pages, crass when the sector faces deep public funding cuts - of up to 75 per cent for teaching, if some sources are to be believed.

Lord Browne of Madingley's review of university fees and funding, due to report next week, looks likely to recommend a full free market in student fees. Combined with the public funding cuts to be confirmed in the Comprehensive Spending Review just a week later, this will herald the most dramatic shake-up of UK higher education for generations.

At the same time, the global shape of higher education is changing. Last week at the Times Higher Education-Thomson Reuters Building a World-Class University conference, Dirk Van Damme, head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, warned that up-and-coming powers in higher education such as the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland, as well as Asia, could soon challenge the traditional Anglo-American elite.

We are entering uncharted waters and the government is about to take a huge risk in slashing funding at a time when other countries are investing in higher education. As Peter Upton, director of the British Council in Hong Kong, has put it: "We are living through one of those tipping points where in five years, commentators will say this was the period when the landscape changed for ever, when the speed of reputational growth and decline suddenly accelerated." Not a good time for a whole nation to take a massive gamble.

So some in Britain may have difficulty with PA Consulting's claim of abundant opportunities for higher education. But as it points out: there are in the UK 150,000 qualified students without a university place; £10 billion is spent each year on continuing professional development; and transnational education is experiencing double-digit growth.

The UK has some exceptional universities, bursting with entrepreneurial zeal, ready to seize the moment and make the best of the changes. For those who are flexible and fleet of foot, there may indeed be opportunity.

For those who are not, research emerging this week from the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Leading Transformational Change programme will make rather disturbing reading. As we report, the changes will present grave threats to some institutions.

The work led by the University of Plymouth's Julian Beer should be seen as an alarm call for the UK academy: with a free market in student fees looming, with battles for limited public funds intensifying and with more competition worldwide, too many universities lack a distinctive, or even a clear, mission.

Some 13 years of relative generosity in public funding have promoted homogeneity and have left too many universities racing to the middle, trying to cover all bases and spreading themselves too thinly.

So while there are indeed great opportunities for many university leaders, for others it is time to do or die.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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