Strong and stable is better for universities than weak and wobbly

Underinvesting in universities in the face of international competition and political upheaval will be to countries’ social and economic detriment

September 12, 2019
Dragon boat race
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For governments looking to boost their economies and drive forward innovation, investing in universities has become the go-to option.

Higher education institutions turbocharge development via their research discoveries, by educating a skilled workforce, and through their engagement with industry and society.

The fruits of this approach – and, perhaps, the perils of neglecting to back universities in the face of mounting global competition – are evident in the results of this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which we detail in our lead news story this week.

While the UK still boasts the world’s number one institution, most of the rest of its leading universities have slipped down the table. In their place, campuses in China, Germany and Australia have continued to climb.

Our analysis indicates that funding for the UK’s leading universities has failed to keep pace with increases enjoyed by other major higher education systems: per-academic support has increased by just 6.5 per cent in the past five years, compared with 38 per cent in Germany, and 57 per cent in China.

Of all the longer-term trends in the rankings, the rise of China remains most striking: 81 of its institutions have now claimed places in our table, a rise of nine in the past year alone. For the first time, it is home to the top two universities in Asia.

However, we also know that China’s investment in research has not been evenly spread, but has been heavily focused in areas such as chemistry, engineering and computer science, with relatively little attention paid to the humanities and social sciences.

Elsewhere in our news section, we examine how this has reshaped the global landscape of academia as a whole, with analysis by France’s science and technology observatory finding that engineering has now overtaken physics, chemistry and fundamental biology to become the world’s second most researched subject behind medicine in terms of articles published. Computer science has also significantly increased its share.

This shift has coincided with significant overall growth in the amount of research being produced, increasing specialisation and fragmentation of scholarly fields, and intellectual fashions coming and going with increasing rapidity.

This poses a challenge for research leaders and policymakers looking to advance in the global innovation race: which disciplines should they be placing their bets on for the coming decades?

A fascinating study commissioned by UNSW Sydney, attempts to offer some solutions, as our Asia-Pacific editor, John Ross, reports.

While it does name some of the likely hot topics of the next 20 years – applied quantum physics, next-generation materials and the genome revolution, to name but a few – the report’s overarching message is that universities should avoid jumping on bandwagons and should instead stick to their strengths.

The report’s author, Thomas Barlow, also warns against the fetishisation of multidisciplinarity, highlighting that researchers’ work has specialised to the point that even experts from related subfields can find it difficult to communicate.

Whether the report’s predictions are proved right or wrong, one thing that is clear is that maintaining investment in research will be vital in the next two decades – and, in the case of the UK, making up some of the ground lost to its competitors.

Here, the UK’s ongoing political crisis, laid bare by the resignation of universities minister Jo Johnson, is doing it no favours. Last week’s spending review was another missed opportunity to make significant progress towards the goal of spending at least 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development by 2027 and, while an announcement was promised for later in the autumn, the likelihood of a general election clouds this in further uncertainty.

Lest it be thought that universities exist solely to drive economic growth, if the UK’s politicians are to get the nation out of its Brexit-shaped hole they will have to stop pretending that people have had enough of experts and instead embrace the academy’s values of openness, truth-seeking and healthy scepticism.

The UK’s universities desperately need stability and investment because one thing is clear from our rankings: the rest of the world is not going to wait for the country to sort itself out.


Print headline: Future-proofing research

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