Boiling a frog – Global competition is turning up the heat on Britain’s universities

This article was originally published in EducationInvestor, April 2013

As part of an occasional series, INTO has invited a range of leading education sector commentators to offer their views on various aspects of global higher education.  This month, Jonn Elledge, editor of the UK’s widely respected Education Investor magazine offers his perspective on the challenges facing UK higher education in a global market place.

Reflecting  on recent progress of Asian universities in the Times Higher World Reputation rankings and the avalanche of change sweeping the sector, he warns that traditional models are challenged as never before.   The UK’s current reputation as a premium higher education destination leaves no room for complacency he argues.  He observes that finding a niche and remaining open to alternative funding models may be the key to longer term prosperity.

It would be an exaggeration to say the education sector was shaken to its very core by the news, but it certainly didn’t bode well. Back in 2011, when the Times Higher Education first published its ranking of the world’s top universities by reputation, the UK grabbed 12 of the top 100 spots. In the most recent edition, published in March, that number dropped to nine. Our universities, so the implication runs, are losing ground.

This, it was commonly agreed, was a disaster. Labour higher education spokeswoman Shabana Mahmood wasted no time in putting out a statement arguing, “The government should take a long hard look at its policies”. (Perhaps so, but when does the opposition ever say otherwise?) Universities UK, meanwhile, interpreted the news as a sign its members needed more money. So did the Russell Group, albeit for a rather more select group of members. The rankings have taken on the air of a Rorschach diagram: look long enough, and you can project onto it whatever you most want to see.

In fact, there’s no big mystery why the likes of Leeds and Sheffield have fallen out of the top 100. With Asian countries rapidly heading towards first-world living standards, they’re pouring time and money into creating the world-class research institutions that goes with that. The world is becoming more competitive: of course it’s getting harder for British institutions to keep punching so far above their weight.

So we can stop worrying then? Well, no. Because while our top universities may not be in trouble now, there are reasons to think that others will be soon enough.

For some time now the expectation has been that the government’s fee reforms would squeeze those institutions that are stuck stubbornly in the middle of the league tables. Demand for degrees from the top universities isn’t going to dry up any time soon, no matter how much they cost. Those at the bottom of the pile, meanwhile, have been encouraged to slash fees and turn themselves into something that looks a lot more like further education colleges, providing bog standard degrees for local students. Those in between, it was widely thought, would be unable to pursue either strategy, raising questions about how they can sell themselves to students.

Recently, though, a more nuanced picture has begun to emerge. In fact, the trouble isn’t spread across a single wide swathe of the league table: rather, it’s those at the bottom of each cluster of institutions that seem to be struggling. That makes a certain amount of sense. If you see yourself as a Russell Group student, after all, why would you apply for the 30th ranked institution when you can choose from the top 20? If it’s something more local you’re after, and there are two ex-polys in your area, why would you choose the one that’s commonly agreed to be rubbish? London Met need not compete with UCL. But if it can’t compete with London South Bank, then it’s in trouble.

Some will struggle with the new fees regime. This, though, isn’t the only threat on the horizon. In March, a report published by Pearson and the IPPR cheerfully warned that “the traditional multipurpose university, with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effectively research programme, has had its day”. Find a new strategy, the message seemed to be – before it’s too late.

And there are still options for those institutions that can’t claw their way into the elite. Specialise. Move some or all of your teaching online. Turn yourself, as UCLan is trying to do, from a small UK university into a global education franchise. All of these things, though, take capital – and that is in very short supply. While private investors are willing to plug the gap, most institutions have so far seemed distinctly indifferent to their money.

That can’t go on forever. At the moment, most universities are making ends meet. In five years time, some won’t be. At that point, it’s likely that some will suddenly discover a new found appreciation for investment from the private sector. They’d better hope that, when the time comes, they’re not too far gone to get any.

Jonn Elledge

Author: Jonn Elledge

Follow Jonn on Twitter via @jonnelledge

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