Our uniform universities restrict true competition in UK higher education

Martin Rees
THE UK is second only to the US in its number of world-class universities – each a magnet for global talent and high tech expertise. And this has been achieved despite smaller investment, public and private, than other nations.

But the system’s key weakness is that, despite expansion, it is far too homogeneous. Polytechnics were relabeled as universities by John Major’s government; the coalition last year created ten more by a stroke of the pen. And uniformity sends the wrong signal. We need a more diverse ecology: a blurring between higher and further education, between full and part-time, between residential and online.

Nearly all UK universities focus on three to four year degrees, for instance. They’re all incentivised to pursue research; they aspire to rise in a single league table (which underweights things that matter, but are hard to measure, like how rigorous the courses are, and how hard students work.)

We need to learn from the US, which has several thousand higher education institutions: community colleges, liberal arts colleges, huge “state universities” (many world-class) and the Ivy League private universities. But undue focus is put on the Ivy League. They have huge resources, can offer scholarships to needy students, and their broad curriculum is a plus. But to extol them as exemplars is to overlook the dark side of their success: the overt inside track offered to the offspring of donors or alumni. In Oxbridge, there would be repugnance at lowering the entry bar for privileged students.

In Britain, those who have been unlucky in their schooling don’t have, at age 18, a fair chance of access to a selective university. Worse, they generally have no second chance. Here we can learn from the US public sector. In California, a substantial portion of those at the elite state university of Berkeley don’t come directly from high school but as transfer students from a lower-tier college.

Our selective universities should earmark places for students who don’t enter straight from school, but who have gained credit by study at another institution or online. This would enhance fair access, and lead to a more diverse student body. And we should recognise that there’s nothing magic about the level of education achieved in three years. An American will see two years at college as positive. Some drop-outs may return later; others pursue part-time distance learning. Now we are living longer, in a faster-changing environment, the importance of mature students, part-time courses, and distance learning will only grow.

There will always be demand for the intensive collegiate experience offered by the best UK universities. But as higher fees bite, there will be a squeeze on those mass universities, like those that predominate in Italy or India, where students get second rate lectures in large halls with minimal feedback. These will be trumped by online courses. The Open University model of distance leaning, supplemented by local tutors, has huge global potential.

There are few arenas in which the UK ranks in the world’s top two. But to maintain our competitive advantage, quality must be sustained and properly resourced.

Lord Rees is astronomer royal, fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, and author of University Diversity: Freedom, Excellence and Funding for a Global Future (Politeia).