Russell Group chair hits back at ‘noise’ of university attacks

Glasgow vice-chancellor Sir Anton Muscatelli defends ‘cost-efficient’ sector driving UK growth

September 7, 2017

The new head of the Russell Group has dismissed recent criticism of UK universities as ill-informed “noise” – claiming that the UK has the “most cost-efficient and impactful university system in the world.”

Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, said that he was not overly concerned by the wave of recent criticism, which has seen higher education and its funding system variously described by critics as a “gravy train”, “cartel” and a “pointless Ponzi scheme.

In an interview with Times Higher Education as he took over as chair of the Russell Group, the 24-strong group of research-intensive universities, Sir Anton said he did not believe that the chorus of criticism – led largely by Lord Adonis, the former education minister – showed that public sentiment was turning against universities.

“I don’t think we can conclude that from the recent social media debates,” said Sir Anton, who added that he regarded it as “noise”, with many of the attacks “not very well-informed".

Such attacks underlined the need for Russell Group universities to spell out more clearly their important societal role as “engines of social mobility and economic growth” to the wider public, said Sir Anton, an economist who has been a consultant to the World Bank and European Commission.

“We talk a lot about the need for improving productivity to address the economic consequences of Brexit, but that cannot be done without the engine of growth, the innovation and the skills base that universities provide,” he added.

Russell Group universities had a particularly crucial role to play in driving the UK’s economic agenda, he continued, stating that “if you look at the high-skill professionals we need to implement the government’s industrial strategy, they will come from Russell Group universities.”

While it was important for universities to play a full role in the current debate about “striking the right balance between public and private funding” for higher education, the UK “should be proud that it has the most cost-efficient and impactful university system in the world,” Sir Anton said.

“We need to facilitate this debate, rather than bandying about simple and easy headlines, but what we cannot go back to is the system before 1997 when universities were starved of resources,” he added.

While Sir Anton is keen to hammer home the economic benefits of Russell Group universities, he is also aware that the “people dimension” of their work is sometimes lost.

“We focus a bit too much on one or two aspects of our impact,” he explained, citing the attention given to the potential economic impact of the “fantastic medical research happening at Russell Group universities”.

“Rather than focusing on the size and scale of its impact, we perhaps need to focus on the impact that this will have on individual lives,” he said.

Sir Anton, a leading voice for the Remain campaign during last year’s European Union referendum, will also be stressing the “people dimension” as he lobbies on behalf of higher education during Brexit negotiations, namely for clarification of the status of about 32,000 non-UK European staff working in UK higher education.

“These staff make up 15 per cent of the Russell Group’s workforce, but 23 per cent of our academics and 27 per cent of research-only staff – they are hugely valued colleagues who have made the UK their home,” he said, adding that it was a “moral duty to safeguard these colleagues during this uncertain period”.

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