Other countries are proud of their universities. The UK must be too

Posted on: 2018-09-19 06:15:00

Since 1970, the world’s population has essentially doubled. That’s a striking figure in itself, but there’s another to set alongside it: enrolment in the world’s universities has increased six-fold.

In China, Africa, India and Latin America, new universities are being established and increasing numbers of young people are flocking to them. Participation in higher education in China has risen to over 45%. In South Korea, perhaps the world’s most technologically advanced economy, it’s above 70%. The world is becoming more educated.

This makes current debate in the UK an outlier. Universities are often on the defensive when it comes to discussions about funding, politics and student financial hardship. Despite being spared austerity thanks to the 2012 student fee regime, they have nonetheless now faced six years of static funding against rising costs. The media debate is dominated not by the importance, potential and impact of universities, but by arguments which put them on the back foot: worries about the value for money of higher education, debates about the freedom of speech, and concerns about senior pay which have been fuelled by the behaviour of a minority of institutions.

These are serious and important issues, but they should not divert us from the wider problems. It’s true – and barely worth saying – that some graduates in some disciplines will do financially better than others, but going to university still makes sense for young people.

The worldwide evidence we have suggests that graduates earn moreenjoy better health, and live longer. They have a positive impact on their communities, contributing economically, culturally and socially. And universities work for everyone: genetic profilinggraphene and the fundamental research that led to beta blockers were all developed from research in UK universities.

At the beginning of the academic year, with the nation facing greater uncertainty about its future than at any point in most of our lifetimes, it’s important to reassert the importance of universities – the way we shape futures, create knowledge, lead locally and engage globally.

These are also ways for getting universities on to the front foot. We need to make the case for higher education in terms that make sense to the majority of people, a good number of whom have never been on a campus. Universities are complex organisations, and winning the argument about their future means taking the debate outside them.

If the 19th century was driven by coal and the 20th century by oil, this century will be driven by ideas and our ability to explore and exploit them. Universities will be the lifeblood of this economy, and their research will lead to the innovations that shape our lives.

Universities are also training the professionals who will staff public services as they respond to demographic, economic and social change, demanding radically different services.

And universities now drive regional economies through their work with students and close relationships with employers, which are radically reimagining higher education through programmes such as degree apprenticeships.

Around the world, countries are proud of their universities. In the UK, it’s time to reset the agenda. There’s never been a time when universities have been more important to more people than they are now. Our futures depend on them.

By Chris Husbands

Source: The Guardian

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