Revealed: for whom the bill tolls

The West’s elite institutions are paying the price for state funding cuts, our World University Rankings show

October 4, 2012

World-class universities are incredibly expensive. This is perhaps the single most powerful - and obvious - message from the annual Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

The 2012-13 results show the rise of leading institutions across the Asia-Pacific region: top universities in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Republic of Korea and Singapore are on the up. In contrast, elite US and UK universities have suffered significant falls.

Although the West dominates the tables in terms of sheer numbers and while global super-brands such as Oxbridge and Harvard have generally held firm at the top, the rankings offer clear empirical evidence that the balance of power is shifting from West to East.

Why? It largely comes down to cold, hard cash. Asian nations are investing heavily in high-level skills, innovation and knowledge to stay globally competitive. In contrast, data published last month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the US’ total spending on tertiary education as a proportion of gross domestic product dropped from 2.8 per cent to 2.6 per cent between 2005 and 2009. The Republic of Korea, notable for strong rises in the rankings this year, has now caught up.

And the UK? Its figure is shameful - 1.3 per cent of GDP, well below the OECD average. As the Russell Group of research-intensive universities has pointed out, UK public investment in higher education, at only 0.6 per cent of GDP, is lower than that of Brazil and Russia, and is on a par with South Africa’s.

In this context, the fact that the UK has 31 universities in the top 200 is an amazing achievement. Our leading institutions are among the best in the world. But for how much longer?

While the sun is rising in the East, England at least is heading into a perfect storm: among the thunderheads are hostile visa conditions repelling the world’s sharpest minds; uncertainty about where our next generation of scholars will come from, with postgraduate study in a policy vacuum; and cuts to public funding for teaching and research.

In this context, the tripling of tuition fees as a means to shore up university finances seems hopelessly inadequate. Fee income may well replace the lost public funding for teaching. But fees do nothing to counter the reductions in capital funding and the real-terms cuts to the ring-fenced science budget. With extremely adverse conditions widely forecast in the next spending review, it seems that without urgent and radical action, England, outside a tiny Oxford-Cambridge-London golden triangle, faces a future of mediocrity among the ranks of the global research-led universities.

Just before this week’s rankings revealed large falls for some of the most prestigious US public research universities, a report from the National Science Foundation showed that per-student funding for such institutions in 10 American states had fallen by at least 30 per cent between 2002 and 2010. All but seven states had made cuts. Ray M. Bowen, an NSF board member and a former president of Texas A&M University, spelled out the implications: “These institutions are important to the economic strength of our nation long term…we want policymakers to understand that.”

The UK and other nations of the West must heed that message as well. Sustaining our world-class universities will unquestionably cost the Treasury a significant amount, but allowing our great universities to slide down the global pecking order will cost us all an awful lot more.

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