If it ain’t broke, break it? (Higher education again)

Normally focussing on macro-economics, the always readable and thoughtful Martin Wolf has a piece on universities in the FT today.  He’s concerned about increasing commercialisation of the HE sector and Government proposals to open it up to new entrants.  He sounds almost elegiac, writing…

In its origins and still today, a university is a special institution: a community of teachers and scholars. Its purpose is to generate and impart understanding, from generation to generation. The university is a glory of our civilisation. It is neither a business nor a training school. Of all this, the discussion document shows little inkling. Abusing a label may not matter so much; not recognising the role of universities does.

He’s puzzled at the Government’s proposals which seem to be trying to fix something that isn’t broke.  As he notes

Four of the 10 top-rated universities in the world, five of the top 20 and 10 of the top 50 are British. This is according to the QS world university rankings. But other rankings are similar. Despite its vastly greater size and wealth, the US has only five of the top 10 and 18 of the top 50. The EU, excepting the UK, has none of the top 10 and just two of the top 50. In higher education, the UK is a superpower.

As an insider, it does increasingly feel like a business and a training school.  I’m a bit torn here.  I suspect that university departments can sometimes degenerate into cosy, complacent clubs without exposure to competition, clear comparison and accountability.  On the other hand, when I look at the individuals running such departments, they feel like SME managers with HR, budgeting, marketing etc. taking up more and more time relative to teaching and research.   Rather than a community of teachers and scholars, the HE model seems to be shifting towards something that feels more like a corporation who provide education services to clients.  This shift has gone far further in some universities than others.   Hopefully they’re not reading this…my mates at Cambridge seem to have a life of Riley 🙂


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