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World-leading British universities under threat 'without sustained funding'

4 min read

Lord Karan Bilimoria, founder and Chairman of Cobra Beer, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and former Chancellor of Thames Valley University, offers his thoughts on the position of UK universities in the world and the funding challenges they face in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Last week’s Times Higher Education World University Rankingsplace 34 British universities in the top 200. This is an outstanding achievement; it is a testament to the intellectual power and potential of the UK and a key part of making Britain the best place in the world to live, work and do business.

The UK must expect excellence, for the standards it upholds are the main reason why the world's most trusted and powerful people, including many former and present heads of state, are graduates of UK universities.

Funding issues

However, within this picture of overall success, British universities continue to face the challenge of investing to ensure future success – and meeting students’ needs – with increasingly squeezed funding support. The relative lack of funding at the disposal of our universities is halting progress while other countries go from strength to strength. European and international competitors consistently outperform British investment. In Finland, public investment in higher education stands at 1.87% of GDP, while in Germany it is 1.12%. At present, combined public and private expenditure on higher education in the UK stands at 1.2% of GDP – only fractionally more than the German government invests on its own in its country’s higher education system.

Boosting British business

Universities UK has highlightedthat the higher education sector generates £73 billion of output a year for the British economy. As the total share of the job market requiring higher skills rises from 42% to 46% by 2022, universities will continue to do vital work in educating the graduates needed to meet the UK’s skills needs.

In addition, universities produce technology and innovations that, when made commercially available, represent a significant boost to British business, with around 15,000 graduate start-ups and academic spin-offs launching between 2010 and 2014. But the academic research that underpins new discoveries, innovations and products also relies on sustained investment – and again the UK is bottom of the class when it comes to government support. At just 0.44% of GDP, the UK has the lowest public investment in R&D of all the G8 countries, and well below the OECD average of 0.7%. What is more, public investment in R&D has been shown to encourage greater private investment, which the government itself has said it wants to see rise.

We can still say our universities are a source of national pride. But without sustained funding our success is under threat. It makes little sense to get anything but the very best out of our universities.

Open to the world

And it is not simply the economic advantages that need emphasising. We must continue to attract the world leaders of the future and in so doing benefit our international partners, strengthening connections and putting the British stamp on emerging nations' approaches to significant 21st-century challenges. This will only happen if potential students overseas are made to feel welcome, not be put off by tightening rules around visas – intended to cut out abuse by a small minority but in practice making it harder for the overwhelming majority of legitimate, and much valued, international students.

The recent and historical success of British universities is to be celebrated, but we must not be complacent. Our leading few are starting to be overtaken by their overseas competitors, hampering the growth of the UK's GDP, and the reason is the lack of investment. With a coordinated response from private and public investors, we can maintain and develop our position in the global arena. The benefits of this approach will be substantial.

The UK is second only to the US in higher education, but in the words of St Jerome: "Good, better, best. Never let it rest. 'Til your good is better and your better best."

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