In a recent interview with Times Higher Education, I described much of the antagonism towards UK universities over the summer months as uninformed noise, peddled by those with a distorted view of what 21st-century universities do, and how they function (“Russell Group chair hits back at ‘noise’ of university attacks”, News, 7 September).
Such a cacophony needs no direct response. But universities across the UK receive substantial public funding, and we do have to keep demonstrating the value for money that we provide for our students, graduates and society as a whole. This is particularly true at a time of fiscal stringency.
Our response has to focus on three main areas. First, we must continue to provide evidence of higher education’s impact on the economy. The Russell Group of 24 research-intensive universities generates a total economic output of £32 billion for the UK, and supports more than 300,000 jobs. The university sector as a whole is one of the UK’s top export sectors: something that needs to be cherished given the uncertainties of Brexit.
We also have a major social impact. At a time of serious public concern about inequality and social mobility, it is worth remembering that 20 English Russell Group universities awarded 80,000 bursaries or scholarships in 2015-16, and spent 34 per cent of their income from fees above the £6,000 baseline on widening access. Outside England, in my own university, our Scottish-domiciled admissions from the most deprived 40 per cent of postcodes made up 29 per cent of our admissions, with 13 per cent from the most deprived 20 per cent of postcodes.
But we are not only engines of social mobility at the individual level. Russell Group universities also help to generate social cohesion by working with our partners in other agencies – local authorities, the health service and voluntary organisations – on place-making activities, ranging from social health interventions to cultural outreach.
Second, we should avoid second-guessing government policy on the funding of university teaching. Ultimately, it is a societal decision what the division should be between private and public contributions. Higher education in the UK is a devolved competence, and the four nations have arrived at different equilibria since 2007. In Scotland, for instance, there is a commitment to a no-fees regime for Scottish students. In England, the taxpayer bears about 35 per cent of the cost of teaching, with tuition fees making up the rest. Jo Johnson, the minister for universities and science, recently reaffirmed his government’s view that this is an equitable and sustainable model, notwithstanding press speculation last weekend about a fee cut. Our role is to support the politicians’ ongoing analysis of these considerations through our own in-depth knowledge of what is a complex system.
The Russell Group recognises that the English system has permitted the expansion of student places and increased the demand for loans. In this context, we can see how the teaching excellence framework can be part of an evolving regulatory system designed to ensure quality and value for money. But we have to work with government to ensure that the TEF provides information that is genuinely useful to students and parents. We therefore welcome the minister’s speech last week announcing a greater emphasis on absolute – as opposed to relative – scores, an increased role for data on graduate earnings and a metric on degree attainment, intended to reduce grade inflation. As universities that believe in the highest standards of education, we welcome this additional focus on the highest quality and standards.
Third, universities must continue to stress our role as drivers of the innovation that is crucial to realising the UK’s industrial strategy. This is especially true for the Russell Group, whose universities account for 76 per cent of all UK research grants and contracts and 66 per cent of total income from collaborative research with business – resulting in everything from high-growth spin-outs to major strategic industrial collaborations.
Finally, we must ensure that any future debate on university funding does not lose sight of the importance of a sustainable model. There can be little doubt that the UK’s system is highly cost-effective by international standards, and extremely attractive to the best academics from across the globe. One important issue to highlight is that in all universities, but particularly research-intensive ones, teaching and research are not delivered separately. Any changes to teaching funding could have unanticipated consequences for research, innovation and outreach. At present, government- and charity-funded research does not cover its full economic costs, so universities have to raise private-sector income and flexibly deploy the resources that they have to provide both world-class education and research. We have been transparent in this regard, but cannot take anything for granted.
For our part, the Russell Group will work actively with the UK government, the devolved administrations and other agencies to demonstrate the value that we add for every taxpayer’s pound spent, in terms of economic and social impact in every part of the UK.
Sir Anton Muscatelli is chair of the Russell Group and principal of the University of Glasgow.