United Kingdom universities offer students a high quality of education

Universities need a united voice

The UK higher education sector is admired around the world, and will remain so, says David Bell, if universities emphasise their strengths rather than their differences

In the lecture room: UK universities offer students a high quality of education

UK universities offer students a high quality of education. Photograph: Garry Weaser/The Guardian

The recent changes in membership of higher education sector groups, and the associated internal commentary, brings back memories of my previous life in government. Denizens of the Westminster village would chew over the minutiae of every pronouncement as if lives depended on it. Meanwhile, normal people carried on … well, as normal.

I confess to being a relative newcomer to the higher education sector, but I bring plenty of experience from the aforementioned corner of SW1. Despite the occasional indications to the contrary, substance matters there just as it does in the wider world. At a time of change and international challenge to our standing, we need, more than ever, to be selling the virtues of UK higher education at home, abroad and in the corridors of power, rather than being distracted by internal positioning and posturing.

The UK higher education sector is admired throughout the world, whatever our current concerns. While the quality of teaching and campus facilities play a part, it is the brilliance of the research undertaken here that maintains our reputation. We produce nearly 15% of the world’s most highly cited academic papers and are second only to the US in the share of world research citations.

If the experience at my institution is anything to go by, research success is often the result of fruitful collaborations; cross-disciplinary work with other colleagues as well as with partner universities in the UK, Europe and beyond.

Top-flight research takes place across the sector. The vast majority of the 150-plus institutions that took part in the last research assessment exercise demonstrated at least some world-leading quality research in one or more of their submissions. The supposed delineations between different research groupings, or indeed those universities with no defined alliance, paint a misleadingly fractured position of research in the UK. As a sector, we have a compelling story to tell about the success of UK research.

Of course, some universities are much stronger in research than others. That, too, is an advantage, although we must guard against the danger of so concentrating research that we imperil the research “strength in depth” that exists in many universities across the country, irrespective of grouping.

The danger is that we seek to maximise our differences when the picture is more nuanced. In the same way that the 1994 Group can no more claim to be the sole guardians of a high-quality student experience, neither can – nor should – the Russell Group claim exclusive ownership of world-class research.

We would also do well to remind ourselves that one of the great strengths of our university system is its richness and diversity. That might not be immediately apparent, and those outside the Russell Group and the 1994 Group may be forgiven for thinking that they are being treated as mere bystanders as the “big guns” fight amongst themselves. It is to our great advantage as a country that universities can focus on different aspects of work to provide real choice to students. That is particularly important when few serious politicians now talk about too many people going to university.

I am not being woolly-minded about all of this. The friendly relations that vice-chancellors have with each other is always tempered by the competitive edge. That has always been the case, despite talk of a “golden age” that has now become the romantic memory of some.

However, universities need to make common cause when promoting the virtues of higher education to all those who might benefit from the experience. There is a huge prize to be won if we reach out and demonstrate to the world the quality of education we offer our students and the outstanding research we conduct right across the sector. And talking with a united voice is even more of an imperative as the next spending review beckons.

Finally, and still just about fresh from the Whitehall “bubble”, I would venture this observation: common cause is a sharp instrument, and a more powerful tool, than divide and rule.

• David Bell is vice-chancellor, University of Reading and former permanent secretary at the Department for Education


Source : United Kingdom www.guardian.co.uk


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