Leader: Northern lights brighten sector

August 5, 2005

The Oxbridge universities have for centuries dominated UK higher education. Other institutions can only envy their history, traditions and resources.

With an array of Nobel prizewinners and other star researchers among their ranks, our two most ancient universities have consistently won a large slice of the grants from various government agencies.

But is all this about to change?

In recent years, two London powerhouses have emerged - Imperial College and University College London - which now challenge Oxbridge in the research funding stakes. And new evidence that other institutions are mounting a serious challenge to Oxbridge emerged this week. The latest official figures show that Southampton University has overtaken Oxford University in the research grants won in engineering and the physical sciences; and Oxbridge is nowhere among the institutions listed in a study of those securing the most PhD students jointly sponsored with industry.

Meanwhile, the "N8" group of research-intensive universities from the North of England have been telling MPs that they are "the new global power base in Britain". This may seem a bold claim. But the group - which comprises Newcastle, Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and York universities - make some persuasive arguments. The northern universities are profiting from the links they have forged with their regional development agencies - they received £189 million from RDAs in 2005-06. They have identified five research areas with the most potential economic benefit. This focus on the commercial fruits of research has apparently won plaudits in the Treasury. The northern universities also cite specific advantages they offer over Oxbridge: they have the space to develop new university centres and they can act quickly to exploit new opportunities.

It remains to be seen whether the N8 can fulfil a vision to become a genuine global power, but the development is welcome. A group that offers competition to Oxbridge and other universities in the South East can only be a good thing for higher education and for the wider economy. This is not to knock the Oxbridge institutions, which are too often the easy targets of uninformed criticism. We should celebrate our academic elite. But the northern way offers a distinctive alternative, and one that demonstrates the diverse strengths of the university sector as a whole.


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