Britain’s universities need real reform

Allister Heath

ritain were a rational country, we would be spending far more time and energy seeking to improve the quality of our higher education to ensure that it can compete globally – and better to help young people prepare themselves for their lives and careers at a time when cognitive ability, creativity and knowledge are more valuable than ever. We should be aiming to build the highest quality, most academically challenging universities, with the best research and teaching methods (rather than have an academic read out his notes out to a class of bored onlookers, the dominant “teaching” technique of the past few centuries).

With the right policies, British higher education could grow into an ever-larger source of invisible exports, with the world’s best students being attracted to come here and the best universities turning themselves into global education multinationals, with campuses all over the world. Planning reforms and tax changes would help forge closer links between the best science universities, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

To a minor degree, some of this is happening. A few universities remain in the global elite, though the UK’s position has collapsed in recent decades, with US and now Chinese universities on the rise. There has been some cross-fertilisation between academia and business.

In general, however, the UK is squandering its historical advantage and failing to fulfil anything even remotely close to its potential. Higher education has become a political football, with universities paying the price for the failure of primary and secondary state education. Vast numbers of young people are suffering the consequences of government-created over-expansion and dud courses.

So radical change is necessary. Transforming students into consumers aware of the opportunity cost of their choices is one step forward, though the support system for poorer applicants is clearly too complicated.

But in the main we are only getting small-fry reforms which, while useful on the margins, won’t really transform higher education. One such policy is that unveiled by the admission body Ucas this morning. At present, teenagers apply to university with predictions of the grades they will achieve in their A-levels – Ucas wants to make them wait until they actually receive their grades in July (A-levels would be moved forward) before applying. Students would find out by September if they have been successful. This makes sense, though will have to be managed carefully to allow universities time to interview properly their prospective students. Where the Ucas plan could break down is that students will only be allowed to apply to two universities – and will have to wait to be turned down before being able to apply to others. Why? The risk is that many will be even more tempted to ditch the UK system altogether and apply abroad.

Part of the problem is that universities are controlled by the ineffective Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, led by Vince Cable. This is an astonishing anomaly. Universities obviously should be under the remit of the Department of Education, run by Michael Gove, one of the only cabinet ministers who is actually pushing through real, positive change. Gove has been trying to liberate schools from bureaucracy – he should be tasked with doing the same with Britain’s universities.
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