UK universities are national treasures that need care and attention

Britain has a remarkably strong higher education system that makes it a world-leading player, and it requires tending, not trashing

September 7, 2017
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Reading your own obituary “concentrates the mind”. So said Christopher Hitchens a year before his death in 2010.

Speaking at the New York Public Library, the critic and journalist recalled reading about “the late Christopher Hitchens” in an art exhibition catalogue.

He was, he noted, in good company, with the likes of Mark Twain and Alfred Nobel also having outlived published obituaries.

In the case of the latter, Hitchens said, it “changed his life – when Nobel read his obituary, it said that he had been a warmonger and a dynamite maker, so he went straight and endorsed a boring peace prize”.

The point, he said, is that one way or another, seeing one’s own demise reported in black and white has a powerful impact.

If it is a little strong to suggest that UK universities have been reading their own obituaries in recent months, it’s not a million miles from the truth.

University-bashing has become the national sport – one the country is actually quite good at, for a change.

The system has been described by the prime minister’s former special adviser as a “Ponzi scheme”; politicians have lambasted high pay and accused vice-chancellors of forming a “cartel”; and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that the poorest students in England will leave university with debts of almost £60,000.

There is a growing crisis of trust in universities’ ability to deliver “value for money”, and a crisis of identity among academics, who do not believe that higher education can be measured in such terms.

Meanwhile, the Home Office has been using grossly inaccurate figures to wage a relentless campaign against “problem” international students overstaying their visas, while newspapers continue to publish highly critical stories such as the false claim that universities discriminate against UK applicants so they can recruit more lucrative overseas students.

In short, it has been open season, and universities have found their ability to deflect, refute or curtail the barrage to be limited – and that’s if we are being polite about it.

These criticisms might not collectively add up to an obituary. But the risk is that they contribute to momentum for changes in the funding and regulation of UK universities that limits their ability to be world-leading in research (arguably the best in terms of bang for buck) and transformational for students regardless of their background.

Throw in the destabilisation threatened by Brexit, and it’s clear that UK universities are on the ropes.

Which is why the somewhat counter-intuitive double-header at the top of this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings – with the University of Oxford retaining top place and the University of Cambridge beating Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology into second – affords a valuable opportunity to take stock of how extraordinarily good the country’s leading universities are.

This is not just about Oxbridge, either. The UK has 31 institutions in the top 200, and although half of these lost ground, many of the country’s best held steady in the face of exceptionally strong global competition.

Given the levels of investment in higher education elsewhere, and the lengths that many governments go to in order to support and bolster their best universities, this is a remarkable performance.

It’s also a timely reminder that whether certain people like it or not, Britain’s global identity – its prestige and its place in a world that is connected and that shares vital values and aspirations – is linked as closely to the strength of its universities as it is to anything else.

It’s a point that was well made by Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford, in her speech at the THE World Academic Summit earlier this week.

Reports of UK higher education being in some sort of death spiral may be overstated. But the sense that there are those who would rejoice in its downfall should be taken very seriously. The health of universities cannot be taken for granted, and if it fails, the health of the country fails with it.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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