Our ‘world-class’ status may be greatly exaggerated

Bahram Bekhradnia warns of the clear and present dangers facing the UK academy

November 28, 2013

Source: James Fryer

Judging the overall quality of a higher education system should not primarily be based on how good its universities are at research

How many times have we been told that our “outstanding” higher education system is second only to the US and that the UK “punches above its weight”? Is this really true?

This sentiment is driven primarily by the performance of UK universities in international league tables. In all of the main rankings, we have more top 10, top 20 and top 100 institutions than any country bar the US; and if you look at relative size, we actually outperform it.

But beware of league tables. Effectively, what they all measure (although Times Higher Education claims to look more widely) is research performance, whether directly (eg, citations) or indirectly: student-to-staff ratios, for example, are heavily influenced by the amount of research conducted by a university (which dictates the number of staff it employs), as is the popularity contest by which THE asks academics to rate the reputation of different institutions.

While there is no doubt that our research is outstanding, judgements about the overall quality of a higher education system should not primarily be based on how good its universities are at research.

Having said that, there is no doubt that our universities do outstandingly well in other areas, too. We have, by all accounts, a good record for university-industry links; our academy is wonderfully diverse, ranging from the tiny Rose Bruford College with fewer than 1,000 drama students to The Open University with more than 200,000 part-time students; and then there is the relative autonomy of our institutions, which, despite considerable state encroachment in recent years, retain control over some of the most important aspects of what they do and how they operate – and this is not the case in many other countries in which I have worked.

But any confident assertion of the pre-eminence of our system is undermined by a number of considerable problems and risks that need to be addressed.

One is an unsustainable system for financing higher education. This problem will have to be resolved before long, and its resolution will require some very hard choices, all of which are likely to damage some aspect of the academy. Unless the higher education budget is increased, the budget overrun – now recognised by the government – will require that student numbers be cut, graduates (or even students) pay more, or other parts of the higher education budget are reduced. We already devote less of our gross domestic product to higher education than many of our competitors, and with the recent funding changes rely more on private money than any other system in the developed world.

The government is ideologically attached to market mechanisms that are not working and cannot work in the foreseeable future, so long as student loans are subsidised (and it would take a brave government to remove the subsidy). As a result of the subsidy, student numbers have to be controlled and so do fees. The resultant creation of a pseudo-market among a relatively small group of students with ABB grades and universities is having unpredictable and damaging consequences for the sector as a whole.

Meanwhile, postgraduate provision and research – indeed whole departments – are kept afloat by international students and staff. This may not matter in itself, but it does leave us vulnerable to the sort of xenophobia we have seen recently. While ministers have toned down their rhetoric, it may have done us lasting damage in terms of the willingness of international students and staff to come here.

We should also not forget that the proportion of the UK population taking part in higher education remains relatively modest. Large swathes of the population fail to participate – in particular disadvantaged socio-economic groups and males – but this is a problem we share with much of the world.

Finally, a crucial issue is the standard of our degrees. Here, on any objective measure, we fall well short. This poses a considerable reputational risk for individual universities and the system as a whole, and potentially short-changes students. This problem was highlighted in these pages recently by Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia (“You get out what you put in”, 17 October). Our students study on average about half the time required under the European credit transfer system. And as Acton points out, incoming Erasmus students report that the UK’s courses are less demanding than those of any other country – and by a wide margin.

So in some respects we are undoubtedly very good indeed, but in other important areas we have to do much better. Until then, I really hope we will stop saying that we “punch above our weight”.

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