Leader: Pride is a necessary evil

With swingeing funding cuts on the horizon, the sector must not be afraid to boast about its burgeoning economic value

September 17, 2009

Snobbery, arrogance, pedantry, procrastination, lust, complacency and even sartorial inelegance. Ring any bells? I am sure that most in the sector have been guilty of one or more, if not all, of these "seven deadly sins", wonderfully recast for the academy by a team of Times Higher Education contributors for our cover story this week.

Princeton University's Alan Ryan laments the "all too obvious" snobbery manifested when academics ask: "Oh, do they give degrees in that?" or "Is there really a university there?" Graham Farmelo, research fellow at the Science Museum, fears that "too many academics dress down so far that they are indistinguishable from their undergraduates". And we would welcome your suggestions for other vices of the academy.

But as we regroup to prepare for the new academic year, and the politicians return to the front lines to begin the long slog to next year's general election, it is worth reflecting on the serious side of our collective "sins".

At the Universities UK Annual Members' Conference in Edinburgh last week, the mood was relatively sombre (even in the bar after dinner). David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, cited one of our new academic sins: complacency. On the issue of degree quality, he said that vice-chancellors are guilty of at least "appearing" to be complacent.

On a much wider level, Mr Lammy said it was a "pity that the general public doesn't know enough about the contribution made by higher education to national life. Public perceptions of the social and economic successes of higher education throughout the UK often remain outdated."

He was also frank about the tough times ahead: "It's no secret that current levels of public investment are unlikely to be sustainable in future."

With Labour finally admitting that cuts are coming, the Conservatives are making what seems to be a masochistic fetish out of their zeal for the pain ahead. Higher education no doubt will be on the hit list. As this era approaches, the sector must unite to tell its story and make the case for continued, and indeed enhanced, public investment.

In this vein, Steve Smith, in his first address as UUK president, previewed new figures due out in a UUK report next month. He said that UK higher education's economic output amounts to more than £55 billion a year - £10 billion more than in 2004.

"We now calculate that our universities generate about 2.3 per cent of UK gross domestic product, and employ 1 per cent of the UK workforce," he said. If that does not win the argument for investment during the recession, I'm not sure what will.

Professor Smith also reminded delegates that there are four UK universities in the top 10 of the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings (with 17 in the top 100). We also produce nearly 14 per cent of the world's most highly cited research papers, second only to the US, he added.

It is obvious that we have a strong, evidence-based case for investment, not cuts. But that case has to be made loud and clear amid the competing voices clamouring to avoid the axe. In this context, it is time for the sector unashamedly to embrace the core original deadly sin - pride.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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