Universities must define which market they are in

By Mark Wakefield

Universities of East London and Oxford

Like it or not (and assuredly, many don’t) universities exist in an increasingly marketised environment. Current, proposed changes to the sector bring all this in to sharp focus. The new regulatory regime set out in the current Higher Education and Research Bill is particularly significant here. The introduction of the TEF means that for the first time universities will be assessed on the quality of their teaching, as well as that of their research. This is going to put some universities in the Russell Group in particular in a very challenging position. Such has been the status accorded to research over teaching (something actively encouraged by government policy up until now) that many universities have cross-subsidised their research from the fees they earn from teaching.

For how much longer can that go on, or to the extent that it has? Faced with not being rated “Gold” for teaching and losing the fees that go with it, will some universities be able to afford to cross-subsidise? And if not, what happens to their research rankings? What’s more, universities are set to face yet more competition for students. Already some continental universities (Maastricht is a good example) are actively courting the British market. Further down the line the challenger institutions envisaged in the current Higher Education Bill could present a real competitive threat – particularly, if as seems likely, they innovate in terms of the flexibility they offer students.

Globally, competition is also ramping up. One of the most striking things in the recently announced world university rankings was the rise of some of the Asian universities and the scale of funding they are enjoying from their governments. Particularly notable is that some of these Asian institutions now joining the global elite are as young as 25 years old. These two sets of pressures, from without and within, raise important questions about how we conceive of our higher education institutions and how they conceive of themselves. It’s hard to see how the higher education sector won’t shake down into three main groupings: a handful of elite institutions that are genuinely global players thanks to their research prowess; a large body of institutions in which teaching and research are in more of an equilibrium, akin to liberal arts colleges; and a similarly large body of institutions which are mainly focused on teaching applied and vocational subjects.

If this analysis is correct, it calls into question the relevance of the so-called “elite” Russell Group. For institutions who put great value by their hard-won elite status, this will be painful to acknowledge.

The key question, given the competitive pressures I’ve outlined here, is which market are you in? It’s notable that in the Times Higher Education’s recent mock TEF results, some high-reputation institutions performed relatively poorly, the LSE being a notable example. The LSE’s global reputation is such that it might well be able to cope with a relatively poor teaching score and still attract students. But what about other UK universities that regard themselves as research intensive but lack the LSE’s global kudos? They might choose to look at another league table, also published by the THE, which shows that on a wide variety of scores US liberal arts colleges outperform larger and sometimes grander institutions – particularly in teaching satisfaction.

Some Russell Group universities might conclude that their resource split between teaching and research needs to be adjusted if they are to remain competitive. If a broadly three-tier higher education system comes to pass, there will naturally be divisions and subsets within the two large tiers. It will be essential for those institutions in these tiers to be very clear about what distinguishes them from those whom they regard as their true peers.

This is the point at which it becomes vital to ask the basic question about what the core purpose of the institution is that I raised in my previous blog post. In some cases the answers will be unpalatable, particularly where the pressure of the TEF leads an institution to conclude that it needs to prioritise teaching at the expense of research. As one PVC put it to us so pithily, “Teaching is what academics do, research is what they are”. But then that’s the nature of the truly existential challenge that many universities are facing in this increasingly competitive environment. In such circumstances there really is no substitute for hard thinking and decisive action.

Images courtesy Glenn Wood and Pablo Fernández.