UK: Stout defence of universities

Professor Steve Smith, the new president of the vice-chancellors' association Universities UK, has challenged the government to maintain a thriving, strong university sector.

Smith said universities were unquestionably one of the UK's outstanding international successes: four were among the top 10 in world rankings, five in the top 50, and 17 in the top 100. Institutions generated £4 billion in export earnings for the UK each year, and they were increasingly international in character and focus with 10% of the student population coming to the UK from outside Europe. In teaching and research, academics produced nearly 14% of the world's most highly cited research papers, second only to the US.

"New UUK figures, to be published next month, show that the sector's economic output now amounts to over £55 billion a year, a massive increase of £10 billion since 2004. We now calculate that our universities generate about 2.3% of UK GDP, and employ 1% of the UK workforce."

Smith emphasised that the government should protect and promote quality, it should keep universities autonomous, it should help to promote the excellence of the country's higher education internationally and it should spend at least the OECD average on the sector. (The UK spends 1.3% of GDP compared with 2.9% in the US and an OECD average of 1.5%.)

He warned: "Think of the consequences for the UK if we don't. I passionately believe that the UK's future depends on a successful university sector; its universities are the route to that future, since they are the most effective ways to promote social mobility, to ensure social cohesion and to create both the jobs for the future and a work force with the skills that the knowledge economy requires."

In reply, David Lammy looked forward to a new framework for higher education which will be presented in the autumn by Peter Mandelson, now in charge of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which has superseded the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. This framework, he said, would "describe the vision of how government will support universities and employers in working together to balance the supply and demand of high-level skills and the many other valuable things that our universities deliver".

The framework "is likely to ask you to move further and faster down the path you are already on towards greater emphasis on economic outcomes". He added that this did not mean there would be an instrumentalist approach to higher education, or that the notion that the pursuit of knowledge was a valuable end in itself would be abandoned.

Turning to the recent highly critical report of the parliamentary committee on higher education, chaired by the Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis - see "MPs infuriate universities" - Lammy said he did not agree with the idea of a national curriculum for higher education which would lead to ossification of the sector. But he thought there was a real challenge for universities on quality in a consumer-driven 21st century.

"Even if you aren't complacent about quality, you sometimes appear to be. I think you have to recognise that and deal with it. This is indeed another area in which you have to get better at telling your story."

He urged institutions to give students clear and accurate information about courses, how much teaching they would get and how much independent learning was expected, how they would be assessed and what might happen after graduation.

Lammy reassured his audience that the government was committed to the Bologna initiative, student mobility and the internationalisation of the curriculum. He also said he was working with the Home Office "to ensure that we get the balance right between maintaining robust visa arrangements whilst at the same time ensuring that institutions are able to recruit genuine international students simply and efficiently".