CBI head John Cridland: country has ‘too many’ universities

England has “too many” universities and some are likely to close, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry has warned.

September 24, 2013

CBI chief John Cridland

John Cridland, the head of the business lobbying organisation, was given a rough reception over his views at a fringe meeting at the Labour conference in Brighton last night, with the Million+ group of newer universities rejecting his argument.

“I do think we are probably – driven by the challenge of the cost base we are moving into – going to move into a period of some consolidation. Meaning some universities are going to close,” Mr Cridland told the Bright Britain event on universities and growth.

Asked how many universities could close, he said: “I’m not competent to judge that. But I suspect we have somewhat too many for our capacity to cope with them being separate – and there could be sensible consolidation.”

Mr Cridland added that he did not want to see a fall in overall student numbers. But some institutions are “a little bit too small” and are vulnerable to falls in recruitment from overseas, he told the event, hosted by Universities UK, GuildHE, the University Alliance, the 1994 Group, the Quality Assurance Agency and the National Union of Students.

It was “relevant” to look to the schools sector, Mr Cridland said, when he returned to the theme later in the meeting. “We’ve already seen stronger schools with better balance sheets, inspirational leadership, helping out schools that are not as well positioned and forming federations. I think that’s a good thing.”

He added: “You could well see in parts of the country greater collaboration between [higher education] institutions to share some overheads.”

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, challenged Mr Cridland from the audience. “In 2009, 2010, universities were full…The idea that we have a fringe about Bright Britain and we come away with the message that universities might go down the pan might not be a good one,” she said.

Ms Tatlow suggested that rather than “too many students” or “too many universities”, the problem was “a funding system that is not doing the right things”.

Mr Cridland said he would not want anyone to leave the event thinking “I came to this meeting to say we’ll end up with fewer universities. I don’t retreat from the point. I think at the margins it’s probably likely, because of the stresses and strains of the system.

“But if I wanted people to go away with any message from the CBI, it’s that we want a more flexible system that offers more opportunities for more students to be in business.”

Lord Stevenson, a Labour peer standing in on the panel for the Shabana Mahmood, the party’s shadow universities and science minister – who has hurt her leg in a fall - asked Mr Cridland why “business contributes a very small amount directly” to the higher education system.

Mr Cridland said there was already “more employer sponsorship” of study, but businesses “want a curriculum that’s more up to date, they want a curriculum that’s more relevant”.

He predicted that business-sponsored study would in future not involve fixed-term courses, but involve “far more interchange between the workplace and the educational establishment”.


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Reader's comments (10)

I slightly disagree with JC in the following regard: Britain has too many universities with misguided aspirations. Because of the traditional reliance on government funded ontological research, too many have long forgotten their epistemological and pedagogical responsibility towards undergraduates. I recently met a "bottom 10" (interim) VC who clearly had Rifrafrae fantasies of being a "research driven" university. Utter balderdash! Faculty should focus on understanding great research by others, and quit trying to force their third rate publishing efforts on others.
In the memorable words of Watergate's advice from 'Deep Throat' : follow the Money! That's what most faculty, deans, provosts, and VCs do nowadays. Whether that spreads knowledge and understanding more widely? That is another matter. The pursuit of research bucks over knowledge for kids is a slam dunk for Research, no matter how pathetic the "discovery" or irrelevant the subject. Just so long that each unread piece demonstrates mastery of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies in equal measure! Yes, we are all research driven : like lambs to the slaughter. No one dares say : What Are We Really Doing ??? When the entire discipline of Economics can be described as a downright failure in terms of research making a positive difference we persevere in applauding and rewarding irrelevancy and small minded wrongheadedness
How do we measure Relevancy ? By number of publications in often obscure unread double blind peer reviewed faculty approved academic journals? How do we measure Impact? By sheer number of citations - the number of times somebody else finds your article interesting ( right or wrong) to properly quote somewhere else equally obscure. THE ' s entire world rankings methodology rests on this dumb view of educational value!
Michael, The Times Higher Education World Universtiy Rankings use 13 separate performance indicators across a wide range of a university's activities, well beyond research. See: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2012-13/world-ranking/methodology We examine citatinons only to journals indexed by Thomson Reuters as being the most influential and prestigious in the world.
Thanks Phil, And how much "weightage" (to use a cute Indian expression) do you relatively accord to teaching excellence and student feedback? The truth is that the research factories like LSE and Chicago terribly neglect their undergrads, who get dumped with equally exploited GAs and TAs for the bulk of their "high quality " Nobel prize winning education ( especially in economics) ....
At last some one has the courage to say the unpalatable truth! If Lord Stevenson is what the Google says he was, he spent his work life mostly in the No10 Downing Street, think tank etc.. Easy for him accuse the business as Labour always does. What happened to Ed Miliband's thinking of supporting good quality vocational courses so that the students could be encouraged to take them instead of competing for university places? These were his words. Coming back to the reality, Pam Tatlow's response is so predictable; their universities have to answer so much, and really , their numbers are the reason we have so many universities, and our HE is in such disrepute. England needs no more than 50 universities. I would use the THES league table to give options for those who are below the top 50 to convert themselves into polytechnics or institutes offering undergraduate degrees and diplomas which have vocational bias or close.
It is an interesting exercise to read the strategies of the universities say from 90 down in the THE league tables - very unrealistic aspirations to be 'world leaders', 'centres of excellence', 'world renown' etc etc. They need to re-focus and and just do well what they can do well - teach, local research, being a part of the local economy etc etc John Cridland is a star for having the guts to say all of this!!
Presumably the common practice in many universities of accreditation of courses by subject related professional or industrial/commercial bodies e.g. Chartered Engineering Institutes etc., in large part addresses the curriculum relevance issue raised in the article. Moreover the new framework for Higher Apprenticeships potentially provides great opportunity for CBI members to get fully involved in sponsorship arrangements with HEIs.
Re-Simon Page 'I would use the THES league table to give options for those who are below the top 50 to convert themselves into polytechnics or institutes offering undergraduate degrees and diplomas which have vocational bias or close.' That was their back ground function anyway, as it was for most British universities created from the late Victorian period, except the Plate Glass versions of the 1960's. Most had offered courses set and examined by the Professional Institutes. The main change has been subcontracting this function to the universities themselves through accreditation. Up to the post 92s the previous universities were supported for research but are seemingly now struggling to keep up the required levels of funding . Except perhaps for the very limited group of world ranking that gather in much of the available contracts.
Presumably the number of university places required is related to growth in productivity and expansion of the economy, which on a rising trend likely creates demand for higher and changing skills. Recently the rates of growth of both UK productivity and GDP have stagnated.

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