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Government focus on 'top' universities dangerous, says Universities UK chief executive

Universities UK Media Release, November 27, 2002:

Diana Warwick, Chief Executive of Universities UK, spoke in a House of Lords debate on the financial state of British universities this afternoon. Below is a text of her speech:

I declare an interest as chief executive of Universities UK.

Itís only a few days now since I last stood up to talk to you about the financial situation of the universities across the UK. I am glad that this important issue is receiving the attention it deserves. And it is for this reason that I thank the Noble Lord opposite for giving us all the chance to consider this issue. And it is a very welcome sign of how seriously this issue is considered that so many Lords from across this House want to speak to it.

I think the most fundamental change I have seen over recent weeks is that there is now general acceptance that there is a real problem facing our universities. As the Economist said this week: "That universities need more money is no longer controversial." Rather than the Universities UK figure of £10 billion over the next three years being seen as a sign that universities are in cloud cuckoo land, it is now the benchmark for what is needed.

So what is the problem? Well, the starting point for any discussion is that universities have been seriously underfunded for more than 20 years. They now face a major investment backlog. Universities UK set this out in its spending review submission, Investing for Success.

And the problems have not been relieved in recent years. This year, the sector faced a deficit of almost £51 million. This is the status quo. But to provide the kind of university education our young people need for the future, the status quo is no longer an option. The Secretary of State himself said last week in the Independent on Sunday that there is a backlog in capital investment alone of some £5.3 billion.

I should also stress that this is not an issue that faces England alone. Higher education across the UK is in a similar financial position.

In Scotland, the Executive has announced new money in its spending review. This has been welcome. But it has concentrated on research - with not much left over for teaching. It is vital that the link between teaching and research is fully understood, in Scotland as elsewhere. Scotland, it seems will have no new money to maintain teaching standards. And moreover no money to implement the Disability Discrimination Act and new pay arrangements. So scarce university resources will be stretched still further.

In Wales, as in England, institutions do not yet know what they will get next year, let alone the two years after that. But institutions in Wales are also hindered by the plethora of competitive funding initiatives. This discourages the very collaboration which the Welsh Assembly is so actively seeking from institutions, as they have to compete against each other for scarce additional funding rather than working together.

And in Northern Ireland, there is great concern about the lack of research funding in the draft Northern Ireland budget. In fact, I have been with representatives from Queens and Ulster universities in Westminster today. They have been here to meet noble Lords and members of another place who represent Northern Ireland constituencies from across the political spectrum, to raise the parlous state of higher education research funding in Northern Ireland. Would my noble Friend pass on my concerns to the relevant ministers in the Northern Ireland Office?

Meanwhile, in England, which this House has within its direct remit, we await the outcome of the Governmentís strategic review of higher education. What do universities need from that review?

Well, we wanted to be consulted. And Iím glad that there is now a more open approach from the Government on this issue. We even have a discussion paper now Ė although, to be honest, it contains questions that the Government might have asked 18 months ago rather than two months before the results of the review are announced. But I shouldnít be churlish and I welcome the opportunity the paper affords to put our view nonetheless.

What else do universities need? Well, they need to know what new resources they are likely to get from the 2002 spending review. They had expected to know this month what the sector would get over the next three years. But they wonít get this information now until January.

This places universities is a difficult position. Itís hard to know how to plan activity in a multi-million pound business with no idea at all of its income at least for next year until only a few months in advance. So itís vital that there is no further delay in the release of this information.

But messages from Government indicate that the £9.94 billion funding gap Universities UK has identified is not likely to be met from public funds alone. There are too many other priorities, and I respect that. Other ways of raising funds are needed. And there is clearly a lively debate to be had. There is a wide range of opinions amongst vice-chancellors themselves.

What is clear is that whatever solution is found to the funding crisis in our universities, public funding will remain at the core of the financial health of the HE sector. No solution which places overwhelming emphasis on private contributions is going to answer the needs of the whole sector. Such a solution would lead to a two tier system Ė the better off, and the underfunded - which I, and others, would find wholly unacceptable. That kind of differentiated system would simply not deliver the high quality expansion opportunities that the Government clearly wants.

But rather than talk too much about what we need, I want to explore what these extra resources are needed for. They are needed to maintain high quality higher education across the university sector.

One of the less welcome aspects of recent debates on higher education, particularly from the Government benches, has been the focus on so-called "top universities". I think that this fixation can be quite dangerous.

No-one would ever argue that all universities are the same. But this does not equate to some universities being good universities and others therefore being bad universities. Different universities offer different opportunities, some are very involved in their communities, some are at the vanguard of efforts to widen participation to those from lower socio-economic groups, while some concentrate on research; new universities produce world class research, History at Oxford Brookes for example, as do old universities.

We need to have the resources to be able to pay those who work in universities properly to reward and motivate them adequately for the hard work they do and to modernise pay structures. Our work has shown that recruitment and retention difficulties for both academic and support staff have worsened progressively over the last four years and they continue to do so

And of course, we do need a real recognition of the link between research and teaching. There is a danger that the recommendations in the review could lead to an irreversible split between these complementary disciplines. There is a real fear that teaching would suffer in institutions which did not have the support of research work, and it would be difficult for universities to recruit the best teachers if they were not able to offer research opportunities.

We would also find ourselves out of step with the rest of Europe at a time when we are setting up the European Higher Education Area. According to the European Universities Association, there are no universities in Europe which do not award PhDs. Do we really want to be restricting artificially the number of universities offering PhDs at a time when students from around the world are knocking on our door because of the reputation of our PhDs across the sector? Itís madness.

I want to mention one more concern before I finish, I have been perturbed to learn from media comment that the government has concerns about the governance of our universities Ė about how well we would spend any additional resources they receive. This is a line of thinking I want to knock on the head at once.

I am not sure where this view comes from. But it does a great disservice to a sector that has maintained excellence, despite the neglect by Governments of all hues that it has suffered since the 1970s.

Universities have delivered, on widening participation, on research, on links with business and local communities, at the same time as funding per student has been reduced drastically, by some 37%. They have explored new sources of finance. The administration in our universities is supported by hard working, professional staff, from those in human resources to those in finance.

I want to finish with the words of the Secretary of State from his article in the Independent on Sunday last weekend. He said: "We must not let our universities down and risk undermining their ability to build for the future." It would let not only our universities down, it would let our students down, it would let the country down, it would let our reputation for excellence down, if the solutions led to an entrenched two tier system, where some institutions flourished and others withered. Iíd therefore like to ask my Noble Friend if she would confirm that the results of the review will address the needs of the whole university sector or just those of part of it?

November 2002

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Last updated: 29 November 2002 10:55
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