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Posts Tagged ‘higher education under tories’

Back in the middle of the last decade, when balancing the UK’s books was a simple matter of ascertaining which part of the public sector would be allowed to be the most profligate in any given year, the Labour Government, devoid for once of significant worries about inflation, unemployment or public sector debt,  became particularly concerned with the role that the country would take in the global economy in future years.

One result of this concern was the commissioning of  a long-winded review of science and innovation policies, somewhat optimistically entitled ‘The Race to the Top’, which was headed up by failed scientist/successful grocer Lord Sainsbury of Turville.

Those of you with sufficiently long memories might recall that the track record of such reviews has been patchy at best (The Ryder Report, which created the lumbering, strike ridden dinosaur that was British Leyland, springs to mind, for one), but this did not deter  Sainsbury, who set about visualising a New Britain with the sort of missionary-like zeal that he had presumably once applied to reducing the margins of the farmers who supplied meat to his supermarkets.

He envisioned Britain’s future as lying not in the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution, which  long since had been replicated in cheap-labour-driven Asian countries, but in the creation of a knowledge-based economy focused on producing high value-added goods and services.  And key to this economy were the organisations that deal with the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge – universities.

To be fair, the notion of making universities the cornerstone of the new knowledge-based Britain actually seemed fairly sensible; after all, the UK could no longer compete with countries like China and India at the low-end of the market, so harnessing its world-class higher education institutions to drive innovation in high technology and other knowledge-based industries could be a way of creating a competitive advantage at the high-end.

Unfortunately, Sainsbury’s predictive powers didn’t stretch as far as  foreseeing the sub-prime crisis and the subsequent ballooning of public sector debt. His recommendations, which mainly involved the Government spending significant sums of money, now seem like relics from a more prosperous age, especially in light of the recent announcement by Lord Vader… sorry, Mandelson, that higher education would face a cut of over £440 million to its budget in 2010 and 2011.

Which brings me to the really interesting question – in the light of these proposed cutbacks (which, incidentally, are unlikely to be reversed should there be a change of government in May) what will happen to universities next, and where does this leave the vision of a knowledge-based high-tech Britain?

As I mentioned earlier, the UK has a world-class higher education sector, with four institutions ranked in the top ten globally, and over 50 in the top 600 (QS World Rankings 2009). Unlike its major competitor, the US, whose universities occupy the other six places in the top ten, the UK’s institutions are all public (bar one), all charge a tuition fee that is considerably less than the cost of course delivery, and all are thus very much dependent on the distribution of government funds for their continued existence.

This uneasy reliance on the public purse means that UK universities are not only vulnerable to changes in government funding, they are also susceptible to the whims of each administration, many of which conflict with the ideas and precepts that the higher education sector holds most dear.

So, with public funding being reduced significantly over the next three years, and with UK universities unable to increase the level of tuition fees (unlike Ivy League institutions, which can effectively charge whatever they think the market can sustain) some commentators are arguing that there is little hope that they can retain their position amongst the world’s elite.

I don’t agree with this view, however, for a number of reasons.

First, all the political signs are pointing towards universities being granted an increase in the level of tuition fees that they can charge . Although this is an issue that has been skillfully sidestepped by both of the major political parties (Labour, with Tory support, ensuring that Lord Browne’s review of tuition fees was commenced before the election – as it was required to do by law – but is scheduled to actually report after it), there seems little doubt that students will be forced to pay significantly more for their higher education in future years. Provided this doesn’t result in a decrease in student numbers (and recent research from OpinionPanel shows that demand for HE remains relatively price inelastic up to a fee level of around £6000 per year),  the net effect should be a balancing of the overall budgets.

Second, the top UK universities have always been extremely efficient at producing world-class research. I know this may sound bizarre, given that many of the competing international institutions are private organisations, unencumbered by the sort of time and effort-sapping Victorian bureaucracy that is common amongst the UK’s Russell Group institutions, but the facts speak for themselves:  four UK universities placed in the top five internationally in the 2009 QS rankings, despite the fact that their income is considerably lower than their immediate rivals. The University of Cambridge, for example, has an annual income of less than half of that of Yale, yet despite this, it has been ranked above its US competitor in three of the last four years. Thus, even if incomes are reduced, unless these reductions are of cataclysmic proportions (which would be political suicide anyway), higher education institutions should still be able to compete on the world stage.

Clearly then, provided sensible choices are made, the UK’s university sector will not become the sinking ship that some have suggested. This does not mean, however, that the vision of a knowledge-based Britain can also be saved: maintaining world-class universities is one thing – ensuring that this translates into meaningful results for the economy is quite another. Or, to be clearer: the outcomes of the best higher education research can quite easily have extremely limited economic impact.

Of course, there are ways to assess the likely impact of research, and distribute funding accordingly, but any such system will suffer not only from resistance from the academic community, but also from the fundamental problem that it’s extremely difficult to predict how wholly theoretical research undertaken today may be applied to practical issues in the future. Quantum physics, for example, could have been accused at any point prior to the last fifteen years of being a navel-gazing subject that provides little benefit to mankind, other than the imposition of an extra layer of complexity upon our understanding of the world, yet today it has found a supremely practical application in the newly developing field of quantum computing. Numerous other examples of research initially thought to be purely theoretical eventually yielding beneficial results are littered throughout history. All would have been far more difficult to achieve had the scientists originally involved been forced into conducting only applied research.

The real challenge, then, for the UK, is to generate the necessary economic impact from its universities’ research, without stifling areas of development that may appear fiscally worthless but have substantial benefits at some future date. How successful the Government is with this will determine whether the UK moves towards being a provider of high value-added goods and services or continues to have a more mixed economy that is susceptible to competition from the Far East.

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