At a time when our country's greatest achievements seem to belong exclusively to the past, in one significant area of our culture we apparently still stand out: our universities. Education ministers and their spokesmen never lose an opportunity to insist that British universities are the best in the world. In what follows I shall ask how true this claim is, and go on to argue more seriously that current practices and policies will inevitably lead to a decline in the status of our university system. I shall question in turn the growing number of our universities, the model on the basis of which they are now increasingly structured and run, the problem of grade inflation, and finally the implications of the introduction of two-year degrees.
So how good are our universities? The most frequently cited league table of universities worldwide provides the following answers. We have four in the world's top 10 – Oxford (5th), Cambridge (6th), Imperial College London (8th) and University College London (10th) – and 18 in the top 100 including Edinburgh (18th), Glasgow (69th) and St. Andrews (97th). Quite impressive if hardly earth-shattering. But the question I am asking concerns the future. Are the policies we are currently pursuing the right ones to maintain – never mind enhance—our positive reputation at the university level in higher education? The answer may well be no.
For centuries in the past England got by with two universities. In the same period Scotland had four. Today we have at least 154 and, as we shall see, are promised many more. In the past the system of external examining, in which faculty from one university were involved in the degree examinations of another, made it possible to argue that, say, a first class degree from Aberdeen was of equal status to one from Exeter. Few would argue that across the board the same is true today.
In fact, with the emergence in 1994 of the so-called Russell Group of 24 leading universities in teaching and research, the difference in quality and standing of institutions in the university sector was made quite clear. No doubt Russell Group institutions will continue to do well in world standings, but it is all too likely that the recent explosion in the number of universities will in the end lead to a watering down of the prestige of UK university degrees in general.
A related issue is the currently much debated one of so-called grade inflation. The concern here is over the classification of final degree examination results. When I began my own teaching career in the early 1960s, students on the basis of their results were awarded a first, second or third class degree. However, there was a growing feeling that this arrangement was less than fair to those students who had done very well, narrowing missing a first. The answer was to divide the second class into two categories: 2/1 and 2/2. In due course this change was made – with the assumption that the 2/2 would remain the standard mainstream award with the 2/1 being given to a relatively small body of candidates who had performed well above average. This has proved not to be the case.
Grade inflation has meant that more and more students are awarded 2/1 degrees. And that in turn has led to the 2/2 result being regarded as a disappointingly poor one. Simultaneously there has been a huge increase in the number of students being awarded first class degrees. In 2016-17 in the UK as a whole 26% of students received a first. At the University of Wolverhampton firsts were awarded to 28% of candidates, at the University of Surrey the figure was 41%. In that year, across all British universities, 70% of students received either a first or a 2/1. Does this really matter? I suspect that in the long-term it will undermine the level of importance given to the class of degree with which individual students graduate. Perhaps in the end classification will be abandoned.
The problems created by grade inflation, and the growing number of universities, are minor compared with the issue to which I now turn. What I have in mind is the transformation of universities as centres of higher education into versions of big businesses. It is extraordinary just how completely a neo-liberal, free-market philosophy has taken over how our universities are structured, governed and run. The business world's values in terms of how money is raised and expended now dominate. Competition is seen as the crucial driving force behind university development. We've become accustomed to hearing students described as customers. And it is true that, apart from Scottish students at Scottish universities, students across the UK pay a high price (around £9,000 a year) for the education they receive – and are encouraged to demand value for their money.
Only one aspect of this change to the university as just another free market enterprise has hit the nations' headlines: the salaries now being paid to vice-chancellors or principals. Readers will remember the outcry when it emerged a few months ago that the head of the University of Bath was being paid well over £400,000 a year. In fact six-figure sums for the holders of such positions have become normal. Why? Because CEOs in the business world have long-earned such salaries. But the impact of the change is being felt by all those working in the university sector, including both academics and administrators.
When I began my own career in the 1960s, securing an initial appointment was the major challenge. Even for holders of doctorates, the competition to gain an appointment was intense. But that hurdle crossed, one's career path was straightforward. Lecture and teach responsibly, research and write and begin to publish, and there was every reason to expect to build a secure career. That is no longer the case. With so many more universities there are inevitably more jobs. But it is increasingly common for appointments to be on short-term contracts. Fluctuating student numbers can determine the size of departments. An initial appointment no longer guarantees a permanent job. Even more striking is that in the current climate a successful career is no longer built on significant research and publication.
Now it seems that all faculty members are expected to be engaged in bringing money into their university. What this means is that it is no longer the quality of one's research that matters, but whether it gains large awards from the national or international research-grant awarding bodies. If projects involve sharing grants with other major universities so much the better. Money is what counts.
In relation to university administration, the business model has led to a substantial increase in the number of jobs in that area. Let me cite recent figures for Glasgow University which indicate that less than half of those employed by the university are engaged in teaching or research. Out of a 7,219 total of employees only 3,060 are teachers or researchers – 42%. 2,347 – or 37% – are made up of management, professional and administrative staff. The rest are in non-academic areas.
These figures may well sound quite surprising, but I suspect that what is true of Glasgow is almost certainly true of the university sector in general. What do so many administrators do? I don't know what the answer is, but some at least seem to spend their time trying to raise money – by increasing student numbers. Given that the income of most universities is now made up of student fees, this is hardly a surprise.
In the case of the Scottish institutions, the push is above all to increase the number of overseas and postgraduate students, because they pay generously for their presence. Hence there are employees whose job it is to sell their university's attractiveness in relation to such students, emphasising the superior quality of the facilities of every kind they provide. On this basis we are now attracting very large numbers of Chinese students – and it even seems to be the case that Chinese money, or money from overseas tax havens, is helping to pay for quality housing and other facilities. Money talks here too. But there could be a future price to pay.
My final piece of evidence that our universities are in danger of losing the lofty prestige that over centuries they have gained, concerns the latest wheeze that Westminster educationalists are busily promoting: two-year degrees. I am astonished by the general lack of astonishment at a proposal that reflects an utter failure to understand what a university education is about. What it is not about is churning out quickie degrees so that students can pick up better paid jobs sooner than their less fortunate peers. Yet that is the basic argument advanced by those who support this absurd idea.
The generally unrecognised truth is that even the current three-year honours degree in English universities is something of an anomaly: in worldwide terms, a version of the Scottish four-year honours degree structure is far more common. (The three-year version no doubt reflects a belief in the superiority of English A levels – whether that superiority remains in place is an open question.) But the really damaging aspect of the two-year degree plan is the assumption that students choose to go to university because they believe a degree will get them a well-paid job.
In all my almost 40 years of university teaching I never met a student who mentioned money as the reason for their presence. I accept that taking courses and passing exams – which leads to a degree – is at the heart of the university experience. But it is about a great deal more. It's about growing up, becoming independent, meeting and getting to know new people, widening one's experience in all kinds of different ways. And above all it's about the opportunity to share in the world of knowledge and learning that universities have studied and promoted over long centuries.
Today the so-called STEM subjects are widely seen as more worthy of study – and perhaps in economic terms they are. But to suggest that the study of philosophy, history, literature, the arts, and the social sciences, should be limited or denied in a university makes no sense whatsoever.
Back in 1605, Bacon announced he had taken all knowledge to be his province. If UK universities wish to lose such worldwide status as they presently retain, the road to follow is to abandon the study of the humanities – and, as a handful have done, start offering two-year degrees.