The price of quality and innovation is failure

David Matthews reports from the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha and hears Tony Blair’s former adviser argue for university ‘turnover’

November 22, 2012

Mulgan sector needs ‘radical’ ideas

Poor-quality universities must be allowed to fail and institutions or companies from the UK or abroad should be able to bid to replace them, Tony Blair’s former head of policy has argued.

Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, said that this was the only way to ensure that the academy would innovate. There is little systematic enquiry into how universities can improve their teaching and research, he added, and more funding was needed to investigate “radical” higher education methods.

Speaking to Times Higher Education at this year’s World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar, held on 13-15 November, he said that for any field to innovate, “you have to allow some turnover of institutions”.

“I would actually like to see some universities close and new ones open. It’s one of the peculiarities of universities that almost however bad you do you don’t close,” he said.

It was good that schools in the UK could now be shut if enrolment was poor and quality was judged to be low, he added.

“That was very controversial in schools 15 years ago: it still appears to be very controversial in higher education. I’d say that the lesson from everything from private companies to political parties to schools is that if you don’t have some way of creating space, you won’t get enough innovation,” he said.

Dr Mulgan, a founder of Demos and former chief executive of the Young Foundation, both thinktanks, said that while universities were autonomous their funding was not, so one way to shut down poor-quality universities would be to cut off their state income.

Under new management

If a university were to be closed down, it should be replaced, he said.

His preferred option would be to “literally close the whole thing down and offer…an open process for people to bid to be the new management team and run it, which could be another university, it could be one from outside the UK”.

Dr Mulgan argued that universities should be allowed to fail as part of a broader move to develop new ways of working in the academy.

“One of the surprising things about schooling and HE is that they don’t really have any transparent ways of funding innovation in their own practices,” he said.

This was in contrast to healthcare, Dr Mulgan argued, where there was a range of funds and researchers aiming to develop new treatments and better practice.

“There are very clearly established protocols for assessing what works and what doesn’t, and for spreading good practice,” he said, but in higher education they either did not exist or if they did they were found only “randomly”.

In any field, 1 to 2 per cent of the sector’s budget was usually spent on research and development, “but in higher education there are still no funding streams that encourage genuinely radical innovation”, he said.

Funding for such innovation could go to private companies, he added, but in return for the public having a stake in any successful projects created.

Dr Mulgan also argued that some universities were not connected to their local and regional economies and communities. To remedy this, he suggested channelling some of the funding for higher education through regional organisations, such as local enterprise partnerships.

In addition, he argued that to stimulate genuine breakthroughs in theoretical research, funding should be made easier to access for “the more angular, more difficult, more eccentric theorists who probably won’t be very good at filling in forms”.

The research councils and the peer-review system tended to favour people “who are good at managing peer reputation and networks”, he said.

Nesta, a charity that encourages new ideas through grants, networks and events, is campaigning for the UK government to invest the proceeds from the sale of the 4G radio spectrum, which it estimates will come to £4 billion, in research and scientific facilities.

World bank advice: more should take out income-contingent repayment plans

The UK’s system of student loan repayments has been so successful that it should be rolled out across the world where possible, according to the World Bank’s lead education economist.

Harry Patrinos said that a model where loans are repaid in proportion to graduate earnings increased access and was financially sustainable, but many countries lacked the sophisticated tax system required to collect repayments from graduates once they had jobs.

“What I admire about the UK higher education system is the student finance [model],” he told Times Higher Education at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar.

“Very few countries get this right: Australia, New Zealand, the UK (are examples). The future payments, contingent loans, have been very successful and should be replicated,” he said.

Dr Patrinos stressed that he was not specifically referring to the coalition’s policies to raise tuition fees, but the model established under Labour where student loan repayments are based on earnings.

Across the world, states lacked the resources to fund high-quality university education, he said, but relying on parents to pay upfront fees promoted inequality.

“So the only thing that’s left is future earnings,” he said. However, this was not possible in most countries “because you don’t have a good tax system so you can’t identify individuals”.

At last year’s summit, Elizabeth King, director of education at the World Bank’s Human Development Network, told THE that universities across the world were not giving students the skills needed to enter the job market, a particularly acute problem in the Middle East and North Africa.

Dr Patrinos said that over the past year, the “narrative” in those regions had changed, “so we’re hearing more and more how tertiary education should be focused on markets and the curriculum should be more focused on employers”.

But he added: “When I looked for concrete evidence (of change), I couldn’t find any,” with the exception of a Tunisian programme to establish colleges that are focused on job skills.

David Matthews.

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