UK Universities global path in World Rankings

16 September 2010

David Willetts offers a paean to the performance of UK universities in the world rankings and discusses how the coalition government aims to support institutions' development

The UK's universities have produced a convincing showing in this year's Times Higher Education World University Rankings. I am delighted that we punch well above our weight — home, once again, to 29 institutions in the top 200 and second only to the US overall.

It is especially pleasing that our universities have demonstrated their worth against new, more rigorous criteria. Reputation counts for less this time, and the weight accorded to quality in teaching and learning is greater. Indeed, the inclusion of scaled data and research productivity relative to size have played to the strengths of many of our smaller universities.

The challenge, of course, is making sure that British institutions feature just as prominently on the global stage in 2020 and far beyond. That is the aim of the review into university funding that Lord Browne of Madingley is carrying out for the government.

Higher education is going global fast. Students and academics are more internationally mobile. First-rate universities are growing in emerging nations. More research crosses national boundaries. I believe the UK is well placed to thrive on this exciting international stage.

We already have an exceptionally open and diverse higher education system, and the coalition government wishes to make it even more so. Students from some 230 countries and territories are currently enrolled in UK higher education, while roughly a fifth of its permanent academic staff come from abroad. We have strong links and formal partnerships with foreign universities (more than 160 with Chinese institutions alone). As a result, almost half of all UK research papers are internationally co-authored — and such papers are generally more likely to be cited.

I saw for myself the direction in which the global academy is heading on a recent visit to India with Prime Minister David Cameron. The Indian government is seeking to create 40 million new university places by 2020 and deliver skills training for 500 million people by 2022. On every front, I found compelling reasons for bilateral collaboration: to advance research into off-grid power generation for rural areas and tackle chronic diseases; to work with India as it develops 14 "innovation universities"; to increase university—business engagement and enable thousands more British students to broaden their horizons at Indian institutions.

The government will not micromanage UK universities as they set about making the most of these global opportunities. We trust their enterprise and initiative. After all, the very autonomy of our universities is fundamental to their success and their attractiveness to both overseas students and academics. The government's role is to support universities' own internationalisation plans, offering routes into overseas markets through the likes of UK Trade and Investment and the British Council.

But we will do even more to keep the UK competitive. We will focus relentlessly on the quality of the student academic experience, making even more information available to prospective students. We are asking universities to provide advice to applicants on what they do to maximise graduate employability. We will encourage a wider range of providers to offer higher education in Britain: in July, I officially recognised our first private university college for 30 years. We will foster a wider range of options for accessing higher education, including study at exclusively pedagogic institutions that teach degrees set externally by well-established institutions, such as the University of London. And we wish to give fresh impetus to distance learning, where The Open University is a world leader.

I congratulate THE for reviewing the methodology to produce this new picture of the best in higher education worldwide. It should prompt all of us who care about our universities to see how we can improve the range and quality of the data on offer. Prospective students — in all countries — should have good information to hand when deciding which course to study, and where. With the world to choose from, it is in the interests of universities themselves to publish figures on graduate destinations as well as details of degree programmes.

Neither league tables nor the raw data behind them can tell the whole story, however. There is still the indefinable extra that comes from a strong, self-confident university with a commitment to the highest standards of teaching and research based on free and independent academic enquiry. That is one of the great strengths of Britain's universities, and we are committed to maintaining it.

The Rt Hon David Willetts MP is minister for universities and science