Leader - These are the good old days

After a late 20th-century famine, UK universities are in relative good health - but Whitehall's decision to start preparing for an uncertain future is prudent

March 6, 2008

Is it possible that the first decade of the 21st century will be seen as a brief golden age for British academe? It is true that the country's tally of Nobels has been remarkably thin of late and it is hard to imagine a generation raised on The X Factor tuning in to listen to university intellectuals in the numbers their grandparents did for The Brains Trust. But headlines regularly regurgitated in the right-wing press suggesting that universities are going to the dogs because the middle classes can no longer be assured of the subsidised higher education to which they had become accustomed are as misinformed as they are partisan.

British universities, on the face of it, are thriving. They are second only to America's as a home for world-class learning, as a source of citations and as a destination for overseas students. They educate more students and employ more staff than they have ever done; they are worth £50 billion annually to the economy; and they are staffed by professors whose average pay packets, if not their purchasing powers, are now fatter than those of their peers across the Atlantic. Yes, the red tape constricts as never before, and the surge in student numbers has not been accompanied by a waxing teaching grant. But those students are taught in refurbished lecture halls, walk around spanking new or sandblasted old campuses and are housed in accommodation that would make a medieval bishop blush at the indulgence. Unsated by expansion, the Government wants 20 more centres of higher education to invigorate the parts of the country that have yet to feel the benefit. We are even exporting our peer-review and quality-control systems to countries that did not realise until now that they couldn't function without them.

Such a Panglossian picture will not impress those who struggle to drum basic concepts into exam-deadened first-years, or who spend hours compiling bureaucratic reports, or who suspect that the breakneck expansion was financed on tick. But the famine that the sector endured in the Eighties and Nineties has been replaced by relative feast and the Government should be given credit for it. Things may not be perfect, but in the past decade they have improved.

Now there are clouds on the horizon and Universities Secretary John Denham has felt it wise to launch a clutch of reviews to prepare institutions for what could be an inclement future. In no particular order, these include a demographic dip in the next decade; an undernourished relationship with business; uncertainty about the long-term effects of student debt; a darkening domestic economy; well-funded competitors in North America and agile competitors everywhere else. Ten years from now, the sector could look very different. It is unlikely to be smaller but it isn't certain that all the current players will remain standing.

If Mr Denham's reviews help alert universities to the dangers ahead and equip them to withstand whatever is coming, they will thank him for his prescience. There are, though, a couple of caveats. How grateful should universities feel if the Government holds them responsible for failing to widen participation further than they have done so far by tying yet more funding to access targets? Some 90 per cent of the youngsters from lower socioeconomic groups who have two A levels already enter higher education. Universities cannot easily fish in a pool that has not been adequately stocked.

Equally, ministers seem inclined to measure the worth of all academic effort by its economic impact. That is unnecessarily utilitarian. Putting a price on everything risks misjudging the value of an awful lot of research. By preparing for the long term, the Government has done the sector a service. It would be a pity if ministers, in their desire to advance universities, ended up hobbling them.

gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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