It may seem an odd time to be recommending a profound rethink of the British higher education system but Professor Nigel Thrift, vice chancellor of Warwick University, believes that, if we don't do it now, we risk a downhill slide. He may be right. In his RSA/Fulbright Commission Lecture last night he argued that we face intense global competition from China as well as city states like Singapore and Abu Dhabi, and other European countries such as Germany and Denmark, not to mention Canada, Australia and the US.
Higher education is something we British do well – and it is that quality that may suffer in the years ahead. The top four universities, Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial, are large and probably OK. But it's the next tier down that is vulnerable, the 30 or so universities who could struggle as competition increases and public spending cuts eat away budgets.
We should emulate the Californian system, he believes. It has public and private universities that are big as well as small, residential and commuter, religious and secular. These institutions can specialise in what they are good at, thus avoiding duplication. We should at the very least consider more collaboration, as well as mergers and more private universities. The problem is that we aren't ambitious enough about our university system. We should become so.