The immeasurable value of universities

The coronavirus pandemic and the efforts being taken to tackle it could spark a wider reassessment of higher education’s vital role in society

March 19, 2020
Source: Alamy

What a strange moment we are living through. At the start of the year, the usual forecasts were made about the themes that would dominate the months ahead. For UK higher education, this was going to be the year that “value” gripped political conversations in particular. But a couple of months later, all bets are off as a global pandemic hits every area of our lives.

A few words on the coronavirus first. We know how vital universities will be in mitigating the worst effects of this crisis. We need science and research to get us through the immediate difficulties and find medical solutions. We need social science to help implement the best strategic responses to the coronavirus spread. We also need the arts and humanities to help us understand the human aspect of the responses and, potentially, to live with the consequences.

But in the most practical sense, we also need universities to do what they do on a daily basis: to take care of young people in their charge, to give them shelter and reassurance and support.

At Times Higher Education, we are very aware of the extraordinary efforts that you are all making, and we are committed to doing what we can to help.

With that in mind, we have made all our coronavirus coverage online open access, so that all readers can learn from one another as the situation develops.

And if you have stories to tell, or advice and experiences to share that you think others in higher education can learn from, we would love to hear from you.

Of course, the public health emergency is dominating every other area of life at the moment, too.

That much was clear in last week’s UK Budget, when the new chancellor of the Exchequer outlined a £30 billion response to try to immunise the UK economy.

This overshadowed the other cash injection announced by the government, which will increase spending on research to £22 billion a year by 2024-25. The chancellor also confirmed a budget of “at least” £800 million for a blue-sky research body modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

It is a level of investment to get excited about – but questions will inevitably be asked about the detail, and in particular about the level of control and direction that will be involved, and the measures on which performance will be assessed. The danger is that everything is seen through a prism of economic and industrial gain.

Indeed, the renewed interest in science from the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and his key adviser Dominic Cummings, is something that candidates to replace Sir Mark Walport as head of UK Research and Innovation will be considering carefully – and one of the reasons why, as we hear in our opinions pages, the job may be seen by some as a poisoned chalice.

This cash splurge for research also reflects one of the strange tensions in the UK government’s attitude to universities, and brings us back to the value conversation.

On the one hand, there is clearly a deeply held commitment to science. On the other, there is a sense that the government agrees, to some extent at least, that expansion has gone too far, hence its manifesto commitment to tackle what it described as “low value” courses.

That judgement is made, one can only assume, on the basis of the salary premium that a particular course does or does not confer on the graduate.

But is financial return the only factor at play when the question of value is discussed in relation to higher education? In our cover story this week, we explore this question in depth, unpicking the thought process behind the worryingly common belief that higher education is some sort of “Ponzi scheme”.

The tendency to reduce the value of everything to a financial return on investment is driven, in part, by the fact that these measures are easy. Here again, there’s real danger in reductionism – and we may soon come to see the priceless value of a society full of expertise and willing to follow it.

I am reminded of a pithy professorial put-down on Twitter when the UK government recently announced plans to reduce “low skilled” immigration.

Under a proposed points-based system, a variety of measures – including salary caps – would seek to reduce access to the UK from overseas workers deemed lacking in skills.

“It isn’t low-skilled labour. It’s low-waged labour. If you’d tried to do any of these jobs, you’d know the difference,” tweeted Dave Andress, professor of modern history at the University of Portsmouth.

Quite so.

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