UK universities’ global pre-eminence is in peril

Brexit, domestic funding threats and declining public trust could conspire to undermine a critical national asset, says Louise Richardson

September 12, 2019
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It is enormously gratifying to see so many UK universities doing so well again in Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, the latest version of which has just been published.

It is difficult to think of another facet of British life, from business to the arts and sports, in which so many institutions compete so effectively on the global stage. That speaks to the calibre of the UK’s academics, the strength of its international partnerships, and the generosity of its public funding.

The very real challenge for all of us in the UK is to maintain this position in the face of Brexit, threats to funding and a decline in public appreciation of the extraordinary power of university education. The vulnerability of UK universities to these threats can already be detected in this year’s rankings, with most in the top 200 having fallen.

There is no great secret about how to be a great university. You must attract the best academics and students, and create an environment in which they can do their best work. That is an environment in which the life of the mind is valued, curiosity-driven research is nurtured, creativity is celebrated, teaching is treasured and autonomy is robustly defended.

Great universities are not cut off from the world around them, as in medieval times. Rather, they engage with the world and learn from it; they guard nations’ cultures, drive their economies, serve as engines of social mobility, address societal problems and push constantly at the frontiers of knowledge.

We need to ensure that, whatever Brexit brings, the UK will be able to attract the best academics and students from across the world. This will require a liberalisation of the visa regime and a warm welcome to them and their families.

We also need to ensure that, whatever Brexit brings, we are able to engage in international partnerships with networks of collaborators the world over. Last week, I was in Thailand visiting The Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit, where Oxford and local academics are developing effective means of diagnosing and treating malaria and neglected tropical diseases. In all, we employ 2,000 staff in Asia and Africa in our tropical medicine laboratories. These partnerships are critical to global health, but they can only supplement, and never supplant, the dense network of research partnerships Oxford has across the European Union.

That is why we must ensure that we can continue to participate in European research post-Brexit. European research funding has been central to the success of UK universities. Owing to the calibre of our academic staff, the UK is the most successful country in securing competitive European funding, winning 21 per cent of all European Research Council grants. If access to the ERC were lost, no national replacement scheme could ever have the status, the breadth of vision or the lengthy time horizons of the multilateral system carefully developed over decades by the EU.

The continued success of UK universities also requires secure national funding, however. The Augar report proposes cutting domestic undergraduate fees to £7,500, with only an aspiration that the Treasury would make up the difference. The Labour Party suggests that it will abolish fees altogether in its first 100 days of government, without a hint of where the £12.2 billion cost of maintaining the current unit of resource would come from. We face ever-escalating costs of pensions, salaries and responding to regulatory requirements. We simply cannot sustain our position if our funding declines as our costs increase.

UK universities have shown great ingenuity in adapting to a changing world and finding new ways to fund ourselves. Like others, we in Oxford have made enormous strides in recent years in commercialising our intellectual property. We have capitalised on market confidence in our education by taking out a 100-year bond of £750 million and by forging a £4 billion joint venture with Legal and General. We are also working to inculcate the kind of culture of educational philanthropy enjoyed by our American competitors, as seen in the recent £150 million gift to create a new Centre for the Humanities at Oxford.

If the success of UK universities is to be sustained, we must convince the public of the enduring value of what we do. Increasingly, the value of third-level education is being called into question and the value of a university degree equated with the salary of the graduate. The economic benefit of a university education is easy to quantify but we must not limit its value to that. We must be more effective in making the case for universities and our myriad contributions to the wealth, health and fabric of the country.

In this year’s World University Rankings, seven of the top 10 universities in Europe and three of the top 10 universities in the world are British. This is a fabulous achievement. If it is to be sustained during the coming challenging times, the UK’s universities, schools, politicians and citizens are all going to have to work together to protect this critical national asset.

Louise Richardson is vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford.

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