UK Academies: Pride before the fall?

16 September 2010

The UK academy still punches above its weight, but for how long? Steve Smith says the government must invest or face the consequences

I am delighted, but not surprised, to learn that the UK still ranks second after the US in the World University Rankings.

The new methodology employed by Times Higher Education is less heavily weighted towards subjective assessments of reputation and uses more robust citation measures. This bolsters confidence in the evaluation method.

But we do not need league tables to remind ourselves that our universities unquestionably are one of the UK's outstanding international successes — and I am not the only one to note this.

Travelling as part of Prime Minister David Cameron's delegation to India in July, I could not help but notice just how often he pointed to the excellence of British universities. He noted their high positions in world league tables, especially during press conferences in response to questions about "what the UK brought to the table for India".

The prime minister is right, of course, but the new and improved THE World University Rankings show that this great national asset faces unprecedented competition.

The tables may show that the UK remains the second-strongest university system in the world, but the most unmistakable conclusion is that this position is genuinely under threat. Our competitors are investing significant sums in their universities, just when the UK is contemplating massive cuts in its expenditure on universities and science.

Clearly, however, league tables must come with a health warning, as they never tell the whole story: there are many other factors that must be considered when measuring a university's success. But whatever we may think of league tables, they are here to stay, as recognised in the 2008 Higher Education Funding Council for England report, Counting What Is Measured or Measuring What Counts?

University rankings attract millions of readers and generate countless pages of comment, and we cannot deny that universities respond to them. They will always produce some surprises, and this year's tables show some interesting movement among UK universities.

We have three institutions in the top 10 and 14 in the top 100, which goes to show how we continue to punch above our weight. Overall, the UK has 29 institutions in the world top 200.

However, our global position needs to be seen in context. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development show that we spend 1.3 per cent of our gross domestic product on tertiary education. The US spends more than twice as much, 3.1 per cent, while Australia spends 1.5 per cent and Canada 2.6 per cent. The OECD average is 1.5 per cent.

But our competitors recognise even more clearly the role that universities will play in developing the knowledge economy. In sharp contrast to the impending cuts to higher education and research in the UK, some of our competitors closer to home are doing the exact opposite.

Germany is spending an additional €18 billion (&163;15 billion) on science, research and development for 2010-15; in France, research and higher education will receive an additional €1.8 billion per year in 2010 and 2011. Countries such as China and India are continuing to invest heavily in their higher education systems and will soon be nipping at our heels. Indeed, the former has improved its position in the new rankings.

I honestly think that the implications of the 2010-11 THE World University Rankings are absolutely clear. Their appearance is timely, coming just before the publication of Lord Browne's report into university funding and the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October. To be blunt, these tables show that there is no room for complacency.

The UK's academy has no automatic right to stay in its current position as the second-strongest system in the world. The government faces a clear choice: either continue to invest in the university system or see the UK's comparative position decline.

As our main competitors pump increasingly large sums of money into their universities, we will see what the UK government does in the near future. If cuts on the scale predicted occur, one thing is certain: future prime ministers simply will not be able to point to the comparative strength of UK universities as David Cameron did so proudly in India. The result would not simply be damaging to the future citizens of the UK, but also to our foreign and trade policies.

Steve Smith is president, Universities UK, and vice-chancellor and chief executive, University of Exeter