Declining investment could trigger irreversible loss of British prestige

Russell Group chair issues warning over threat to ‘hard-won eminence’. John Morgan reports

October 18, 2012

Universities in the UK worry that their global position will be irrevocably eroded as a result of underinvestment, the chair of the Russell Group is to tell a higher education conference in the US.

David Eastwood, speaking in his role as vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, is also expected to argue that one characteristic of successful universities in developed higher education systems is their partnerships with the private sector.

“For public universities, this means that the public/private divide is constantly being blurred or, still better, dissolved,” he will tell the Driving Development: Higher Education in the New Economic Order conference on 18 October.

The conference, held at DePaul University, in Chicago, is part of the British Council’s Higher Education Series, designed for senior-level North American-based representatives of the sector.

Professor Eastwood, a former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is due to say that public investment in the US system as a proportion of gross domestic product “is greater than that in the UK, and this despite the very substantial private investment in US higher education”.

Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, released last month, show that UK public spending on higher education in 2009 was 0.6 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with 1 per cent in the US.

However, despite the figures, Professor Eastwood will say that globally the UK “trails only the US in research impact, research output, citation quality, international recruitment and the effectiveness of universities as motors of economic development”.

Professor Eastwood will add: “Of course we take some satisfaction in leading a system which, on these measures, is remarkably effective. We do, however, worry that our position will be eroded as a result of underinvestment and, once eroded, our hard-won eminence will not be recoverable.”

The conference will take place two weeks after the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-13 showed that a number of UK research-intensive universities have slipped down the tables as institutions in Asia have risen in prominence.

Looking at the common characteristics of successful higher education systems and universities, Professor Eastwood will identify collaboration with the private sector as one pertinent factor.

Private practice

“As universities seek both to diversify and to deliver existing activities more efficiently, new kinds of public-private collaborations have developed,” Professor Eastwood will argue.

He is expected to cite his time as vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, where he led a process that resulted in “the development of INTO University Partnerships”, now a “substantial” private provider of international higher education.

He will add: “These kinds of innovative partnerships, now so vital to the development of higher education, are to be found most frequently in advanced higher education systems with self-confident, autonomous institutions (that) control their assets and futures, and are thus able to plan long, to speculate and to take the kinds of controlled risks involved in this kind of diversification.”

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