The number of universities in the UK should be cut by up to half, and serious thought be given to making major research-intensives postgraduate-only, a former president of Universities UK has said.
Sir Roderick Floud will mark the end of his reign as provost of Gresham College in London on 19 June with a speech that will praise the expansion of UK higher education during the 50 years since the landmark Robbins report, but lament the “messy, muddled non-system of higher education” in which it has occurred.
Sir Roderick, who was UUK president between 2001 and 2003 and is former vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, will argue that the UK now has far too many higher education institutions.
“We don’t need two or more universities in each of our major cities, glowering at each other and competing to attract the attentions of businesses and local authorities…Is it really necessary to have two universities outside Brighton, separated only by a main road?” he is due to ask in his lecture.
“In London, the situation is even more bizarre, with colleges which are all nominally part of the University of London all competing to remain independent from each other…We have conservatoires and art colleges which could perfectly well be faculties of a larger university,” he will say.
He believes the number of UK universities should be cut by “at least one-third if not one-half”. However, “experience suggests that universities will not make such radical changes for themselves, [while] the Higher Education Funding Council [for England] has remained supine in the face of the evidence that all this is unnecessary and inefficient.
“The Welsh government has stepped in to reduce the number of universities in Wales; maybe the next English government will have to do the same.”
The merging of departments would also help to eliminate the “duplication and waste” of having first-year lectures “given at several different universities in the same city at roughly the same time” every year “in an age when every student can download a lecture on to a tablet or smartphone”.
Freeing up lecturers to hold more seminars “might [also] enhance student satisfaction, which is wilting under the combined impact of high tuition fees and the increasing lack of willingness of the research ‘stars’…to undertake undergraduate teaching”.
Sir Roderick will also suggest that major research intensives could concentrate entirely on postgraduate education.
The Robbins committee dismissed the idea of barring undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge since it would be “too great a change” to the universities’ character in an era in which only 18 per cent of their students were postgraduates.
But now the proportion is “much larger” and “it is probably time for there to be a proper and open debate about it again”.
Sir Roderick will also condemn the research excellence framework as “an expensive charade” since successive iterations result only in very small changes in the distribution of quality-related research funding.
All research funding should instead be distributed by the research councils, he believes.