Research Profile

Saturday, 24 August 2013

UK universities need more than ABB grades to compete in the global market

Each year, right in the middle of August's silly season, we see the same old proclamations from the media, politicians and university dons about A-Level grades. This year the debate has been enriched further with a good healthy dollop of nonsense about competition. Now that universities can take an unrestricted number of students with ABB or above the hype would have it that we are all ruthlessly battling for students and their valuable fees.

This competition is good, the Government crows: universities up their game to attract the best of British talent; the elite institutions are liberated to take on hundreds more students onto the most popular courses. The argument goes that competition will drive up standards, and for those who cannot attract students – improve or perish. Yet it seems clear such competition is of dubious benefit to students, to universities or to long term economic growth.

Certainly, for the 120,000 or so students who have achieved at least ABB grades at A-Level, it may be helpful to be able to shop around. But going to so-called elite universities is not always a guarantee of satisfaction. In the recent National Student Survey, student satisfaction was high at universities not usually categorized as the elite. Bath was the leader, followed by Keele, UEA and Buckingham. The top Russell Group university was Cambridge, with a score of 92%.
For the majority, choice may be more restricted. The options for studying locally, may just get a little harder, if that local university cannot make the numbers add up and closes down.

It is also highly unlikely that local competition will do anything to improve our economy, despite our higher education system offering an opportunity to do just that. According to Universities UK, universities are responsible for 650,000 jobs and contribute more than £60bn to our economy – with the potential for contributing much more.

Rather than focus on national competitors, we would gain much more by focusing on the international competition and market.  According to the government’s education sector strategy, the international market for higher education is large and growing. There were some 175 million students in tertiary education worldwide in 2010 and numbers are set to grow to 199 million by 2020.

At present the UK is an attractive destination for overseas students, second only to the USA, with some 485,000 students studying here, delivering more than £10bn per year to our economy.

The government is seeking growth of 20% in this market over the next five-year period – which equates to an additional 90,000 students. This might contribute £2bn per year to the economy, and provide perhaps between 50,000 – 100,000 jobs. It is possible that we could and should be more ambitious than this, but even meeting this modest target will require considerable effort and investment from universities.

Yet it is vital that universities rise to this challenge, ensuring that our leading universities are powered by and enriched with the brightest minds from around the world. Universities have become adept at research collaboration, and we need to do the same for education, with universities collaborating regionally, perhaps, playing to their strengths in different subjects to provide students with the best possible education. The current bun fighting over students could hardly be further from this ideal.

It is going to be a long, hard road to economic recovery. Our university sector can and must play a central role in achieving it, but the competition is catching up and one thing is for sure: we need to keep our eyes on the prize of a robust, prosperous Britain with a flourishing economy. 

Competition of this sort is a distraction.

First published on Big Innovation Centre blog at

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