Malcolm Grant: We should be proud of our universities' achievements

From a speech by the President and Provost to launch the Campaign for University College London

We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. At a time when higher education is booming, with a huge influx in the numbers in higher education, and substantial growth in the numbers who come to this country to study, our growth is limited by the fact that the leading UK institutions enjoy nothing like the level of funding of the leading universities overseas.

My international counterparts are bewildered that an institution such as University College London, with an annual turnover of some £500m, and respected worldwide, faces such a challenge to break even each year.

We are to a large degree shackled by the current funding mechanism. The growth in student numbers, and the Government's commitment to a participation rate of 50 per cent, has not been matched by a commensurate increase in funding. This has resulted in a doubling of the student-to-staff ratio, the scandalous neglect of academic pay, and the running down of much of the universities' estate.

Despite these handicaps, we retain many of our traditional strengths, thanks largely to the human capital that we enjoy in our universities. In the recent league table of the world's top 500 universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, UCL was the fourth ranked UK institution, contributing to an overall second place, behind only the US, in the country table of the most successful institutions. Fifteen UK universities appeared in the top 150.

The fact that our universities are achieving so much added value for the nation does not receive the credit it should. A recent article put it very well when it argued that the UK's second place in the Shanghai university rankings was surely of greater note than the UK's 10th place in the Olympics. And yet this performance slipped by relatively unnoticed.