Leader: New universities deserve more investment

May 4, 2007

In most big cities in the UK it is easy to tell the new university from the old one. Just look for concrete instead of sandstone as you approach. But we show this week that exactly 15 years after the new universities were formed their missions still differ from those of their longer established competitors in more fundamental ways than architecture alone.

The initial idea of some new universities that they could match long-established institutions across their full range of activities, especially research, has long since turned out to be illusory. Instead, the current is flowing in the opposite direction. Some older universities may cease to be serious research players as the UK's research cash is concentrated in ever fewer institutions. Because they sprang from local government and have no significant endowments or investments, new universities have had their share of financial troubles. At the same time, they have not been the first choice of the most highly qualified entrants. As this week's report shows, this has meant too many dropouts and too few firsts.

But the overwhelming message of these new findings is that new universities are excellent value for money.

Research is a vital function of any university - and all new universities have at least one highly rated research group - but so are graduates, and the British economy needs them in large numbers. The fact that the new universities are effective at producing them suggests that they deserve more consideration when it comes to allocating funds.

But the new universities' success at widening participation is an even more significant achievement. In most countries in the developed world a degree is essential to attaining a professional career and the income that goes with it. Denying people from families without a tradition of university attendance the opportunity to gain a degree only serves to reinforce social and political division.

All universities make the right noises about access and widening participation. But the evidence of this study is that new universities are better at delivering than their older rivals. This achievement is one that deserves to be rewarded. It suggests that effort put into getting people from families with little tradition of higher education to attend world-renowned "good" universities is misdirected.

But the risk for new universities is that, in a few years' time, near-freedom to charge unlimited fees to home undergraduates will erode new universities' finances yet further. Their limited reputation outside the UK means that they cannot attract lucrative overseas students in the same numbers as Russell Group institutions. These older universities will probably also be able to charge more for home students than their newer rivals can. This might allow them to outbid new universities for the best teaching staff, much as they already tempt the top researchers.

The new universities have got on with the task of outperforming their older colleagues with a minimum of fuss and with far from equal funding. But it seems that, as well as being good at teaching, they are also good at being cost-effective. They turn more of their limited revenue into staff incomes and therefore into academic outcomes.

No university in the UK wastes money. Even those that have been accumulating assets since the Middle Ages are modestly resourced by comparison with their major US competitors. But it does suggest that for both financial and academic reasons newer universities are as good a place as the Russell Group to invest if the UK wants the social and economic benefits of a more educated population.

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