Mind the money, not the Moocs
Another area facing avalanche-like upheaval is research selectivity. Even a cash ring-fenced science and research budget entails no adjustment for inflation for eight years.
That looks to me like a real-terms reduction of about 20 per cent in research funding by 2017-18. The only options for dealing with that are to reduce all funding by the same amount in real terms, or further increase research selectivity.
I suspect that the latter is the only way to balance this financial constraint with the need to compete internationally. One obvious indication of this thinking is the near universal move by the research councils to concentrate funding for PhD training into a small number of doctoral training centres.
There is also the question of the internationalisation of research. Our competitors are putting considerable resources into their leading research institutions. This is particularly the case in China but also in Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, India, Germany and France. Competition is hotting up, and the coming years will surely see a continued rise of non-UK institutions in the world league tables.
On the other hand, increasingly the most highly cited research is being undertaken internationally, in the sense of being authored by academics in more than one country.
Recent excellent work by Jonathan Adams of Thomson Reuters shows this trend to apply to all major knowledge economies, and to all leading universities. Taken together, these factors represent a significant threat to UK institutions if we do not invest in research.
Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on investment in research and development are stark: the UK spends 1.79 per cent of its GDP on R&D - far less than Japan (3.39 per cent), the US (2.62 per cent), Germany (2.53 per cent) and many others. Can we avoid the economic avalanche if we do not begin to match these rates of R&D investment?
Another factor is competition for students. First, there are clear indications that some of our best students are being attracted to universities in continental Europe and the US. The numbers are still small, but a trend is appearing. Second, the end-of-cycle report published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in January showed that a growing proportion of the higher-performing students are applying to a smaller subset of universities. There also seems to be a trend towards increased competition for the highest-performing students, as demonstrated by the University of Birmingham’s decision to make unconditional offers to students predicted straight As.
My final concern is the politics of immigration. I remain worried about the inability of all of us to win the political battle to get student numbers removed from the net migration figures. This remains a toxic political issue, with the dispute essentially one between various parts of the coalition government.
But if we do not win this battle, and more importantly soil the perception of UK higher education overseas (especially in India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), then we could see significant reductions in international recruitment. I think that as a sector we win all the economic arguments, but it seems that the politics of immigration trumps that.
So an avalanche is indeed coming, but I don’t think it’s one solely precipitated by the factors covered in the IPPR’s report.
What we are facing is an even more pressing danger because of the likely continuation of austerity measures in the UK for another five or more years. Some institutions and some knowledge economies will embrace the forthcoming changes and challenges; others will not. It is the job of the government and our university leaders and staff to do all we can to make sure that the UK wins this new race to the top.
Article originally published as: Beware! Hazards ahead (18 April 2013)
Sir Steve Smith is vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter. He was president of Universities UK from 2009-11.