Have we reached “peak higher education”? It is a question that has periodically been posed about every boom industry since oil, though in the latter case the answer is invariably “not yet”.
With global populations continuing to rise, the answer is almost certainly the same for university participation, though it is less obvious that this holds true in every country.
More interesting, perhaps, is whether more is necessarily better.
It is a question that is most pressing in the established systems. With more universities, students, graduates and research output, there are those who argue that less would be more, and they may get their way if the populist political movements continue to hold sway.
In the UK, what comes next hangs on the outcome of the Conservative leadership race.
The assumption is that Boris Johnson will win, and at a recent THE event I asked David Willetts, the former Conservative universities minister, what a Johnson government might be expected to do to the expansionist agenda that Willetts himself championed as minister.
The tension, he said, was between the two departments responsible for higher education: the Department for Education (and, perhaps, the Treasury) which might take the view that too many people were attending university with diminishing economic returns, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy, which would advocate growth in research.
“We have one department with its foot on the brake and one department with its foot on the accelerator,” he said, predicting that “the foot on the accelerator will win” in the context of the country developing a post-Brexit strategy powered by technology, innovation and research.
Of course, it is not just funding policy that has an impact on growth. Another factor is demographics, with the number of 18-year-olds drifting downwards in the UK until 2022, when there will be a welcome return to growth.
For universities on the student numbers tightrope (with the absence of safety nets trumpeted by the regulator), this poses serious challenges.
Several are known to be under serious financial stress, and one of the few taps they may be able to turn up, if the domestic flow turns into a trickle, is international student recruitment.
In that context, moves to ease rules on post-study work visas in the UK, pressed by another former universities minister, Jo Johnson, is a crucial development (and one backed by Johnson senior).
There are those who will also question whether more is better in this respect.
But the days of international students being regarded as (unwelcome) migrants are surely behind us, and if “global Britain” is going to fly, universities have to be at the heart of the national strategy.
The point was made in a recent letter signed by everyone and their dog, calling for the incoming prime minister to set out a “long-term plan for research and innovation investment up to 2030”.
This should go beyond the pledge to raise overall R&D investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP, the signatories say, since “words and targets will not be enough… to build our position as the global hub for new world-leading technologies, draw on our strengths across multiple disciplines, attract talent from around the world and promote British entrepreneurship”.
Whatever the research funding environment, a further question is how quantity and quality of output are related – and how the incentives in research help or hinder the correct balance.
These are questions fraught with complexity, which we do our best to unpick in our cover story.
The answers, such as they are, inevitably vary from country to country.
In China, for example, Bin Yang, provost of Tsinghua University, recently warned that the drive to increase research productivity risked turning universities into “paper factories” that were lacking in real innovation, and with less focus than necessary on their educational responsibilities.
So no, more isn’t necessarily better.
But nor have we reached peak higher education – not by a long stretch. The world’s population is currently 7.6 billion and will reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Half of that growth will come from just nine countries – a list dominated by African nations, as well as India.
For the world to survive, let alone prosper, on that growth trajectory, we are going to need more of almost everything, but education and research in particular.
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