We should celebrate our universities

The Government starves them of cash, bullies them over access and controls their fees at a level far below costs
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If countries' university education were ranked like their performance in the Olympics the UK would be number two in the medals table, beaten only by the US. Now ask what is more important, the quality of teaching and research in the world's universities or seeing who can jump the highest or row the fastest? Surely doing so well in the university league table would be a vastly greater achievement than our perfectly respectable performance at number ten in the table at the Olympics? Surely education is more important than sport? Yet there is an amazing amount of publicity about the latter, while the former has slipped by almost unnoticed. Why?

If countries' university education were ranked like their performance in the Olympics the UK would be number two in the medals table, beaten only by the US. Now ask what is more important, the quality of teaching and research in the world's universities or seeing who can jump the highest or row the fastest? Surely doing so well in the university league table would be a vastly greater achievement than our perfectly respectable performance at number ten in the table at the Olympics? Surely education is more important than sport? Yet there is an amazing amount of publicity about the latter, while the former has slipped by almost unnoticed. Why?

Some of the reasons are obvious. Sport is sexy; universities are not. The Olympics is about individual achievement and that is easy to show on television; universities are about institutional achievement and that is less visual. The Olympics are an event, whereas university performance is an ongoing matter. And the league table - the only comprehensive one anywhere in the world - is constructed by a Chinese university and is only gradually being taken seriously by other countries.

The university ranking is done by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which as far as I can judge has done a very thorough job. The new 2004 table is just out. It is on the net and you can find it very easily via Google. Ranking is by a number of different criteria, with a lot of emphasis on Nobel and other prizes and citations in learned journals, both by the faculty and the alumni.

Essentially the US dominates the list, with Harvard and Stanford at one and two, and a total of 22 universities out of the top 30. But Cambridge is third, Oxford eight, and the two London University colleges, Imperial and UCL are 23rd and 25th. So we have four in the top 30; Japan has two (Tokyo and Kyoto); Canada one (Toronto) and Switzerland one (the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich).

In one category, the quality of teaching, Cambridge is ranked number one in the world, ahead even of Harvard. Being well-taught is surely the quality that students should put at the top of their list in requirements when choosing a university. It is the sort of news you should shout from the rooftops. China is potentially the largest market for international higher education and I bet Chinese students pay huge attention to the quality of teaching. Yet I don't recall seeing any press release drawing attention to this achievement.

If the universities are weak in making what is an astoundingly strong case for themselves, government policy seems almost perverse. Instead of supporting excellence and celebrating achievement, the Government seems almost embarrassed by how good they are. It starves them of cash, it bullies them over access, and it controls their fees at a level far below their costs. It does, to be sure, fund academic research and all credit to that. But the levels of overall public sector funding are low by US standards. The Government's target of getting 50 per cent of school-leavers into higher education would, if achieved, cut per capita funding still further.

With the domestic market putting them under pressure, the universities have been able to keep going largely by getting more into the export market. That is to say, they have increased the proportion of foreign students who pay full fees. We actively recruit for the best students. I met the head of one British higher education institution on a plane between Shanghai and Beijing last year: he was on a ten-day tour bidding for Chinese students.

University financing is a grand quagmire, in which people have very strong views about the different claims of excellence and access. Start from the other end, at first principles. Back in the Olympics of the pre-1914 world, the UK was pretty near at the top of the medals' tables, just as it is now in higher education. In Athens in 1896, we were fifth, in 1908 Olympics in London we were first. Now, we are pleased to be ranking with Cuba and South Korea. China, which was nowhere then in sport and is nowhere now in higher education, is a clear second to the US. What do we do to stop ourselves slipping down the intellectual league table, just as we have the sports one?

The answer is glaringly simple. We have to support excellence in education, just as we are now trying to do in sport. That is what wins the gold medals. More than that, excellence inspires and delights people. Seeing it encourages others to fulfil their own more modest dreams. We know this from the warmth of the response to the medallists as they return.

But to win sports medals there has to be access. We have to spot people with talent, scoop them up, give them access to the best training that is available, and give second chances to people who slip though the net first time. The wider the access, the more chance there will be that anyone with sports talent will get their opportunity to develop it to the full. The result will not be just more medals; it will be a society in which people are not left behind.

Now apply this mindset to the universities. How do we support excellence? Cambridge is within fighting distance of passing Stanford and becoming number two. Oxford could quite easily pull itself into the top five. To do this will need money, which will have to come from the private sector as well as from taxpayers - indeed should come from the private sector. So that needs thinking about: to what extent do the top US universities outpace the top UK ones because of money? Insofar as money matters, how should the UK universities learn from the US system? For example, are there tax incentives that the UK could adopt that would enable Oxford and Cambridge to build an endowment that matches Harvard and Stanford?

But while money matters this is all. It is also about a mindset. Do we want to win medals or don't we? If we do then we must drive for excellence. Gold medals are by their nature élitist. Not just Oxbridge, but the top dozen or so UK universities must think of themselves as playing in a world league that is at the moment dominated by America. That could be changed if they - if we as a country - wanted to change it.

We should see access with this mindset too. It is an unfashionable view, but my own personal inclination is that the 50 per cent target for access to higher education is a sensible idea. But you don't want people with no interest in academic education being corralled into make-believe degree courses any more than you would, in sport, pick people with flat feet to be trained to be Olympic sprinters. Nor do we want the German system, with people able to stay on at a not-very-good university until they are in their late 20s.

The idea has to be applied sensibly. There is a better model, perhaps, in the US, where people can do two-year courses and then convert if they wish to a full degree. The US does have close to that 50 per cent of school leavers in higher education, but the system is more flexible.

That is detail. The big idea is what matters. And the big idea is that we have a powerful position as the only serious challenger to US dominance of higher education: the only other country that can win gold medals. We could reinforce that position, or we could blow it. If we starve universities of cash, the latter is what we shall surely do.

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