David Willetts: Keep on moving

January 1, 1990

4 October 2012

There is no room for complacency, says David Willetts, the UK's universities and science minister. Competition is getting tougher and those at the top must work harder to hold their positions

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013 show that it is not only in Olympic sports that the UK excels. Using the same methodology as last year, the league table shows that our university sector has maintained its world-class standards. Only the US has more institutions in the global top 10, top 50 and top 200. Our closest European rivals, such as Germany, are a long way behind.

We have strength in depth within individual institutions and across the sector as a whole. We can be proud of and optimistic about this success, especially when set alongside the recent Times Higher Education 100 Under 50, which showed that the UK has more universities in the top 100 institutions that are under 50 years old than any other country.

It is right to celebrate this achievement, for the results are no accident. In the words of a THE story from last year, "English universities enjoy the greatest freedom from state interference in Europe." The results also endorse the decision of all three main political parties when in office to fund undergraduate tuition through a subsidised loan system. And, most of all, they reflect the dedication and hard work of individual academics, administrators and students.

But we cannot be complacent. In particular, the rankings show the rapid advances being made in East Asia and the Pacific region. The challenge from the US remains. We actually have one fewer institution in the top 200 than last year. In future, any country that stands still - or moves forward only slowly - will find itself slipping down the international league as other countries try harder, invest more and improve their research.

Our approach to higher education seeks to take account of this. No league table is perfect, but we broadly accept the criteria used by THE, which is why our policies are focused on the same areas.

First, our reforms to undergraduate finance, although controversial, maintain - and in some cases increase - the amount of money available to teach each student, despite the general fiscal restraint. Crucially, young people have responded well to the more progressive loans system that we have introduced, with fears about the impact on students from poorer backgrounds proving unfounded to date. Our goal is to put students at the heart of the university system, and the incentives we have introduced - such as removing number controls from selective institutions and giving prospective students a better picture of universities' performance via Key Information Sets - are beginning to deliver a more student-focused system.

Second, we have protected research funding and sought to eradicate particular obstacles in realising the fruits of research through extra funding for the Technology Strategy Board and the new Catapult centres. We have also adopted one of the world's most far-reaching open-access policies, which will encourage people to read, digest and cite UK research.

Third, we are committed to encouraging universities to collaborate with others. That is why, for example, the Treasury recently assigned £100 million to a new UK Research Partnership Investment Fund. This is set to trigger hundreds of millions of pounds of additional private investment in university research facilities.

Maintaining our global position depends, above all, on the sector itself. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is the missions abroad, often with some of our vice-chancellors. I see and hear at first hand how well regarded our higher education sector is, but I also get to see the global challenge and the international competition up close.

We are still at the early stages of globalisation. Educating citizens to a higher level is the crucial challenge for all nations wishing to modernise. Higher education is a great British export industry. We have excellent universities. We have a regulatory system that gives confidence in our academic standards. And, of course, there is the advantage of teaching in English. We must not let ourselves be left behind.

David Willetts is the UK's minister for universities and science

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