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Degrees of failure: why it’s time to reconsider how we run our universitiesThey have grown vast—and vastly expensive. Time to stop and ask whether something's gone wrong|
Alison Wolf / July 14, 2017 : PROSPECT MAGAZINE
Among the world’s major institutions, only the Catholic Church has operated, uninterrupted, for longer than the universities. They are the source of how we think and what we know, and have formed western elites for centuries. They still do, but in the last half-century they have been transformed—in size, but also in their social impact and political importance. In England most universities have been enjoying a glorious 21st century. But the sector now looks politically isolated and unstable, with Brexit simply adding to a set of deeprooted problems.
Early medieval Oxford, England’s oldest university, had a few hundred students: rising to 4,500 on the eve of the Second World War. Today it has 25,000, and that makes it one of our smaller elite research institutions. University College London now has 38,000 students, twice as many as a decade ago. Manchester pips this at 39,000; Edinburgh and Sheffield are close behind. Other European countries are the same: the original University of Paris, centred in the Sorbonne since the 13th century, is now just “Paris IV”: one of thirteen large campuses spread across the city.. Bologna, the oldest university of all, enrols 82,000. Over the last half-century, the growth of universities has been, quite simply, staggering. This isn’t just a first-world phenomenon. Emerging economies are stacking up far more students at a given national income than developed economies ever did.
This means, of course, student votes can shift elections—witness Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise success in June in seats such as Canterbury (home of the University of Kent). It also has turned the UK’s university sector into a country-wide economic giant. Only the tech sector outpaces higher education’s growth rate around the world, and it employs far fewer people. You don’t, furthermore, get many tech start-ups in Lancaster or Huddersfield, but in both towns, the university is a dominant physical presence. Their combined annual turnover in the UK is now £33bn—on a par with legal services, and half as much again as pharmaceuticals. Universities bring £11bn a year directly into the UK economy in international payments, largely fees; and international students spend another £5bn on rent, food and leisure, making higher education one of our few reliable, huge and thriving export industries.
House-building may be lagging, but campus-building is not. In deprived Wolverhampton, the university has a £250m investment plan with a brand new Business School and science centre; at Nottingham Trent, in a city with yet higher deprivation, it’s a new plaza, new teaching block, and a new Pavilion Building. In London, mighty UCL is projecting capital spending of £1.25bn over a decade, and King’s, my own university, has just occupied a large chunk of the Aldwych.
Why has this happened? Is it all good news? And can it go on? To the first question, the answer is partly that tertiary education is becoming the new global norm, but also specific choices made by Westminster politicians. To the second and third, the answer is no—it is not all good news, and it can’t go on forever as politics is suddenly making plain. To grasp why unending expansion may be neither welcome nor sustainable, we need to ask what individuals and policymakers hoped that all this extra university education would achieve, and where hope and reality have parted company. And that in turn explains why England’s fee-based system is suddenly the centre of wide-open political debate.
“Any rational appraisal of university expansion must consider whether it is likely to create new skills and ideas”
Crudely, there are two major ways in which education has a direct impact on the economy. First, there is investment in skills — that is learning to do new useful things, or, in the jargon, “developing human capital.” This is usually a good idea and, if it’s not prohibitively expensive, makes us more productive. But there is also a second economic effect of education, to “signal” and “sort,” and in a very general way. People sink time and money into proving, via education, that they are more desirable to employers than others. By having more qualifications, more bits of paper, they should move up shortlists, and land interviews.
This works for the individual, if it helps them into a higher-paying job. Signalling can also make hiring cheaper and more efficient for employers if it genuinely indicates which applicants will be quicker to learn, or more likely to work hard. But signals aren’t always very accurate; and when education is used in this way, there is also a risk of an expensive and wasteful spiral. If everybody spends years re-certificating skills they already have, just to land a job they could already have done, or taking qualifications simply to stay ahead of the next person, then society is wasting a lot of time and money that could be better used elsewhere.
Universities today are not just huge economic entities, but they are discussed, overwhelmingly, in economic terms. Any rational appraisal of when university expansion is a good idea—and when it is a costly waste of time—must surely start by considering when and whether it is likely to create new skills and new ideas. If expansion creates ever-more innovative entrepreneurs who transform the economy, then it is hard to imagine investing too much in it. But if the chief effect is to raise the qualification barrier to a job in back-office accounts, then expansion might already be out of hand. No such analysis has, until now, played a major role in our policy-making. If we just continue with higher education business as usual, we risk taking large sums of money from many people for little reward, while for no good reason depriving others, who lack the right piece of paper, of opportunities.
From small beginnings
Britain entered and left the Second World War with just 21 universities. A quarter of university students were in Oxford and Cambridge, a quarter in London, a quarter in the four ancient Scottish universities, leaving the other 14 with only the final quarter between them. And numbers were small: only 2 per cent of the population went to one. Universities were irrelevant to most people’s lives.
But post-war, things started to change. The 1944 Butler Act made a full secondary education available to all. Grammar schools were free and expanding, and growing numbers of children left school with formal qualifications. In a fast-growing economy, middle-class parents (and voters) were ambitious for their children.
The new “plate glass” universities—Sussex, York, Warwick— were conceived and approved in response to the resulting wave of demand, well before the iconic Robbins Report of 1963. What Robbins codified was a principle: namely, that any 18-year-old “qualified” to enter higher education should be given the chance. By the mid-1960s, 10 per cent of the age cohort was entering higher education. In fits and starts, a mix of individual ambition, voter pressure and Whitehall paternalism drove a long expansion over the next 30 years.
Robbins always insisted that expansion was a moral necessity. It was unacceptable, he argued, that young people should be excluded if they had reached a standard that would once have secured them university entry. Looking back, one is struck by how little “competitiveness” economic productivity or “skill needs” entered any discussions of education policy. It was
far more about the ability of people to benefit from
education in terms of intellectual growth and
By 1990, about 25 per cent of young people were going to university, and the policy language had started to change. Education was discussed increasingly in economic terms. School reform was driven by concerns that we were falling behind our competitors on test scores and therefore, it was assumed, on the economic front as well. Universities were seen as engines of growth and productivity. Tony Blair was a true believer that the path to national prosperity was paved with educational ambition, and on the eve of the millennium, he announced a new target for Britain: 50 per cent participation in higher education.
This was far higher than Robbins ever envisaged. It signalled a major change in how the universities were conceived. Instead of scrambling to keep up with rising numbers of ambitious youngsters with A-level passes, the government now proposed to drive expansion from the centre. Universities would be its main weapon for promoting both growth and social equality.
Today, we have reached Blair’s 50 per cent. Instead of 21 universities, “Universities UK,” the sector body, counts 135 members. And with the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, the English government has embraced new “providers,” encouraging them to set up and recruit, and envisaging yet higher participation as well as more competition for existing universities. In this way, the expectation runs, both the students and the country will get richer.