CEO Blog: Global Universities in the 21st century

24 Jun 2014

In a week when George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Liam Byrne, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Innovation have spoken about the contribution of universities to economic growth and the importance of science, it is timely that a conference on Global Universities in the 21st century should be taking place in Liverpool. As someone who grew up in the North East I still find it hard to accept that Liverpool is in the North but certainly it is way beyond London and the South-East where the economic recovery has so far been focused.

As a panellist at the Conference there are some global trends which are worth considering as the debate about the future funding of higher education and science hots up in the UK in advance of the 2015 general election.

First it’s worth saying that the promotion of university rankings and university league tables at both national and international level has not been all for the good. The concept of ‘world-leading research intensive universities’ applies to very few institutions but the idea has come to dominate the global HE agenda. As a result, national funding policies are often pursued to support these universities with resources for research which is highly concentrated by institution and favours STEM at the expense of other national priorities. It is all too common for these universities then to be lauded and promoted to the exclusion of others and for countries to aspire to have an ‘elite’ university even if the funding of the latter is equivalent to a very hefty percentage of the nation’s education investment and gross domestic product.

In the UK it is well-known that some senior university leaders are appointed and expected to deliver strategies to take their university into the top ten or the top 30 of a university ranking. League tables become a perverse incentive in which some university activities are promoted and funded while others become less important simply because they are less likely to add to league table ‘advantage’.

At their worst university rankings, which all emphasise research to a greater or lesser degree, are used by politicians to reinforce a political and social elite with a few younger students from disadvantaged backgrounds supported, encouraged and cajoled to study at some universities rather than others. The progression of  these students is then used as a measure of social mobility – as if!

In contrast there are perfectly respectable and highly successful alternative ‘social’ models of higher education which lead to different funding regimes. Although not without a scattering of universities which score highly in the league tables, the Nordic countries provide an interesting alternative. With levels of investment in science and research which in some cases are almost double that of the UK, an emphasis on translational research funding and Research Councils with names that sound like they belong in the real world and assumptions of partnership built into the funding model, it is an approach that UK policy makers can no longer afford to ignore. The fact that these countries often have no or low tuition fees will be seen by some as an additional advantage.

George Osborne’s speech in Manchester in which he recognised the role of universities in driving growth is welcome but the penchant of this ‘Science Chancellor’ has been to invest in big projects. Equally interesting is Liam Byrne’s resurrection of the idea of a world class university system (rather than the more limiting promotion of ‘world-class universities’).

To move forward the UK and its governments will need to develop a more holistic view about what all universities deliver, and capture in their policy and investment ambitions the intrinsic links between teaching, research, innovation and graduate supply. If they (and we) really do want to promote global universities in the 21st century and the talents of all of our graduates, the silo thinking and funding regimes that have for too long dominated the higher education debate in the UK will need to be challenged.