The Gryphon spoke to Times Higher Education editor, Phil Baty on spending cuts, tuition fees and why British academia is facing an uncertain future
What’s going on in higher education at the moment?
A big issue at the moment is the rise of Asia, given the fairly dramatic spending increase on higher education in countries like China and South Korea. I think that’s in stark contrast to what’s happening in the UK. Fundamentally, it comes down to governments which are absolutely committed to their universities as drivers of economic growth, putting universities at the heart of their economic policies and funding universities very generously. There’s quite a clear sense that governments willing to invest in their universities are seeing real success and governments that aren’t are seeing problems.
How can British universities be more competitive?
British universities are fantastic, resilient and innovative, so I’m sure they’re not all doomed. We’re attractive to top academics from around the world in terms of salaries and employment. However, it wouldn’t take long for these advantages to be eroded by lack of funding and investment. We need to make sure funding is distributed in a way that allows for strong, regional universities to stay strong, so we’re not just allowing only a tiny elite to thrive. I also think rhetoric around immigration is a real issue. We need to make sure universities still get to bring in global talent. International students pay a lot of money and help our universities to stay competitive in terms of funding. They also bring masses of skills and talent which we need to nurture.
“I think there is a problem with a serious risk to places like Leeds, where really good universities are really suffering”
Why are northern universities suffering?
The ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London institutions has a huge advantage in terms of transport and infrastructure. They would argue they have a real struggle to maintain their competitive edge with funding issues, but I think there is a sort of polarisation. Private research investment seems to be creeping further south and talent seems to be drawn into London rather than the other regions. We’ve seen Newcastle fall out of the top 200 this year and Leeds and Nottingham have slipped a little bit. You’ve got a high concentration of universities at the highest level paying high salaries and benefitting from being able to attract more students. International students, especially postgraduates, tend to be more attracted to London. There have been a few cases over the years where people have been sucked into this particular concentration of leading research institutions, with government research facilities tending to move south.
Do you think the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees has affected UK university rankings?
We’ve yet to see the full effect of the new tuition fees. Ministers say the fees will give universities more money, but all they’ve really done is keep them running. Students pay three times more, but universities certainly don’t suddenly see a major injection in funding. The fees have helped us to cling on but by no means have they let English universities stay competitive. It’s tough on the students and it’s tough on the universities, but £9,000 tuition fees allow universities to weather the worst of austerity cuts and to survive the worst of the public spending cuts that other publicly-funded bodies suffered. The overall picture is pretty gloomy for the UK and it really makes the next election pretty dramatic. There’s a fairly serious issue now of how you put British universities on a sustainable footing when our competitors are putting a lot more money in.
“It’s tough on the students and it’s tough on the universities, but £9,000 tuition fees allow universities to survive”
What does the future hold for UK universities?
I think for an elite few, things should be OK. The marketisation of the sector and increasing concentration of research funding on a smaller group means the overall funding for researchers is tight – more and more of it is going to a smaller group. The London-Oxford-Cambridge ‘golden triangle’ will probably be relatively safe. I think there is a problem with a serious risk to places like Leeds and some of the great northern institutions, where really good universities are really suffering. There’s an economic imbalance where London is the place where all the investment’s going, which is a big risk for the strength of the country as a whole. The top five in the UK are all in the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle.
How important is the general election next year?
After the election, I think is still going to be further rounds of serious funding constraints. There will be serious pressure on the need for further spending cuts. We have to fight to make sure research and university funding doesn’t get really battered after the next round of austerity cuts. Universities really need support. They provide employment, they draw in talent and make sure local businesses are innovative. Places like Leeds are global institutions – they have national roles and international roles – but they are still a major part of the city they’re based in to provide employment. For the strength of higher education, we must make sure universities get continued investment.
– The UK has lost three universities from the world top 200 list this year
– Leeds University’s world rank has fallen slightly from 139th to 146th in the world
– Leeds ranks 21st for UK universities, having failed to make the top 30 last year
– London has the greatest concentration of first-class universities in the world
– The UK is second only to the US in world university rankings
(Full table at www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings)
Main Photo: UNESCO