Strategies for ordinary universities

There are over 100 UK universities and most of them are not distinctive at an institutional level. There are a few universities which are effectively ‘brand names’ in themselves, either at the national or international level (for example, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, LSE, SOAS, and the Open University). There are a handful which have very distinctive forms of teaching, like Birkbeck and Buckingham. There are slightly more which have distinctive locations: in cities that students particularly want to go to (Manchester, Durham etc) or where there are a particularly large number of students who want to study near where they live (Lincoln, University of Highlands and Islands), or who want to stay in a particular region (Scottish students are increasingly not considering English universities because of tuition fees).

Most universities, however, don’t have these unique selling points at an institutional level. It’s hard to say what’s special about Royal Holloway or Lancaster or De Montfort as universities. But most universities have what is known as ‘pockets of excellence’. Their distinctiveness is at the faculty or course level: so people who don’t have an intrinsic burning desire to be a student or lecturer at York or Dundee might nevertheless be very interested if they were in a particular field.

It has therefore seemed obvious to senior managers at ordinary universities what you should do. The Ambitious University (and who wants to be at Unambitious University?) needs to thrive in a global market, and so it follows best business practice. You identify your areas of strength and develop them for all they’re worth; you cut, or eliminate entirely, the less successful areas. What could possibly go wrong?

The problem is time-scales. To devise a new course and have it get a reputation needs 5 years at the minimum (several years planning, plus time for first cohort to graduate). To improve the research reputation of a department again takes 5-10 years (unless you’re willing to buy in expensive new talent). To create and develop a new department is probably going to take 10 years or more. Unfortunately, ‘markets’ for higher education move much quickly than that. Subjects such as forensic science can become fashionable with students on the basis of TV programmes. The demand for particular courses (and for education as a whole) is affected by the state of the economy. It’s also affected by the policy of governments and research funding bodies, and by global events. The clever academic strategist of 1999/2000 would have argued that the way forward was courses in internet business strategies and financial mathematics. As for courses in Farsi or Islamic theology, who could possibly see a use for that? And given that the Russian economy had collapsed, why still bother with teaching students Russian? The clever academic strategist of 1988/89, meanwhile, would have realised that the market for Kremlinologists was a stable one, and that high temperature superconductivity would change the world more than the internet.

To successfully predict the markets for research funding and undergraduate degrees 5 or 10 years in the future, therefore, requires exceptional forecasting skills in many different areas. Unfortunately, people with such track records can normally find more lucrative positions than the top jobs in UK universities. As a result, what tends to happens to Ambitious University is that at some point their ambitious plans don’t work out, because they don’t get the funding results they expect. It’s not surprising that they end up in the soup, axing whole departments or cutting jobs for short-term savings.

At this point, maybe Unambitious University starts looking a better bet: or rather, Reliable University. Reliable University realises that universities aren’t exactly the same as manufacturers of chocolate bars. Oxford and Cambridge may be the market leaders, but they’re not going to take over the whole university sector. And despite all the changes in the student body, there is still a substantial market for ‘standard’ courses: a number of people will always want to study French, for example. If Ambitious University has cut its courses in the topic, there are more students to go round the remaining colleges: one of Reliable University’s mottos is ‘we’re still here’.

Reliable University thus aims to have a wide portfolio of courses, but it doesn’t aim to change them much. Its policy is incrementalism: gradually nudging up the quality of research and teaching in a variety of fields, expanding only cautiously, when it has long-term funding in place. More unusually, its investment tends to be contracyclical. When a subject does well and pulls in the students and grants, it doesn’t automatically get additional rewards from the university. The concern is to avoid ‘bubbles’: research panels aren’t likely to keep on rewarding the same kind of work indefinitely, fashionable subjects may go out of fashion again. Similarly, if a department does badly, the immediate response is not cuts or threats of closures (as at Ambitious University), but to see if extra investment and effort can reverse the situation. There is a conservative edge to every decision made, and because it doesn’t have grand strategic plans, but focuses on tactics, it needs fewer expensive strategic planners at the top.

Is such a university feasible? The conventional business wisdom would say not, and that such a business would get taken over by a rival. But that isn’t realistically going to happen to a UK university. Secondly, business wisdom would say that Reliable University won’t be able to retain staff. Why should successful staff stay there, when they can go onto bigger and better things at Ambitious University? On the other hand, if you go to Ambitious University on the promise of big things, what happens if it all goes wrong? You could find yourself out on your ear at a bad time. I suspect there would be a lot of academics who would exchange short-term advancement for long-term security.

At the moment in the UK what we are mostly seeing is the failure of the Ambitious University model. It’s hard to find examples of Reliable University strategies; they won’t feature prominently on websites (these are the nearest examples I can find). And I don’t know whether such a strategy can be made to work in practice, but maybe somebody ought to start trying it.


8 thoughts on “Strategies for ordinary universities

  1. This is a concise piece of stimulating analysis. Nonetheless, I do have one or two doubts about it. Oxford and Cambridge are universities at the very top of the international rankings: it is impossible to say that there are better universities anywhere. Imperial College, the LSE and SOAS are not quite in this category for all their excellence nor, indeed, is the Open University however innovative its teaching methods. It is probably fairer to say that the U.K’s Higher Education sector is over-extended and that too many of its institutions are of mediocre quality. It is certain that it educates far too high a proportion of the post-18 population, most of whom do not really benefit from an academic education but who are vociferous in their complaints about paying tuition fees. Having created a great ‘interest’ (in the eighteenth-century sense) with hundreds of thousands of academics, administrators and students with a vested interest in continuing expansion over the last fifty years, the need to confront economic reality was and is bound to create extreme tensions.


    • There is a very peculiar situation with UK undergraduate education which is that it seems to be very hard to do it a rate the market will bear, and a socially responsible one, and not lose money. However, the USA has a far vaster stratum of ‘mediocre’ universities, liberal arts or community colleges and they seem to manage even though all these people have degrees. So I don’t think it can be inclusion specifically that is at fault, though I might agree that benefit from degree-level education is maybe smaller than it should be.

      Magistra, I think this may be one of the coolest and percipient pieces of analysis of yours I’ve read, and you already set the standards pretty high. The fact that KCL was becoming Unreliable University is very much where my letter to them focussed, but I hadn’t considered the other side of the coin at all.


  2. “It is certain that it educates far too high a proportion of the post-18 population, most of whom do not really benefit from an academic education but who are vociferous in their complaints about paying tuition fees.”

    IMHO, this is far from “certain.” What I am certain of is that this is *your* condescending and far-from-humble opinion.

    And I have my own opinion of your opinion, which I will not articulate here. Because opinions are like [navels] – everybody has one.


  3. Gordon – as an entirely serious question, what is the correct proportion of the population who should have higher education, and how do you decide that? One of the most useful places to go for statistics is the OECD report Education at a glance, which give details for the most developed economies (I’m taking the details from Table A1.3a). It looks at higher education at two levels: degree level and sub-degree level. In 2007, 32% of the UK working population (25-64) had been in higher education at degree and sub-degree level. This is less than in Australia, Canada, Finland, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Norway and the US. Can you explain why the UK does not have a percentage of the population capable of studying at this level, but these other countries do?

    Since you think we are educating ‘far too high’ a proportion, should we look to see what kind of countries have 20% or less of their working population with higher education? These include Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Mexico, Slovak Republic and Turkey. Are these countries doing better than countries that have clearly, in your terms, over-extended their university systems? It’s rather hard to argue that.

    Alternatively, look at this by age. In the UK, 17% of people aged 55-64 have degrees (they were mostly studying in the 1960s, when there had just been an expansion of higher education). Was this expansion too many? After all, Britain’s greatest economic successes were before this period. For British people aged 35-44 (like me), 22% had degree level education. Was this too many? 29% of Britons aged 25-34 have degree level education: is this too many? More Americans of that age have degree level education; so do more Poles.

    The biggest criticism seems to be reserved for Labour’s idea that 50% of the population should now ‘go to university’ (by which they mean degree and sub-degree levels combined). So let’s look at statistics for those aged 25-34 (those educated recently) in all forms of tertiary education: 56% of young Canadians, 56% of South Koreans, 54% of Japanese, 47% of New Zealanders. Does that suggest that the aim of 50% of the UK population going onto higher education is intrinsically ridiculous?

    Of course, those who argue against the expansion of UK higher education tend not to want to discuss statistics like this. So on what grounds do you make your claim that ‘most students do not really benefit from an academic education’? If you’re just arguing on the basis of your prejudices (or your own university experience), rather than specific and wide-ranging evidence, then frankly that’s the kind of argument that wouldn’t impress any lecturer.

    There are sensible arguments to be had about the current UK HE system: is the current balance between degree and sub-degree courses right, are the right subjects being provided, who should pay for higher education, etc? But blanket claims that the sector is ‘over-extended’ are not a useful contribution to the argument.

    Jonathan – Oxford University charges UK undergraduates just over 3000 pounds/year and overseas undergraduates 11,000 pounds plus. Even assuming that the overseas students may be subsiding the home ones a bit, that’s a big gap, and Oxford don’t get 8000 pounds per student from the government. (I think it’s around 5000 pounds).

    As a comparison, Harvard are currently charging 33,000 dollars a year tuition fees. And I’ve found an article that gives average tuition costs for US universities. You can get cheap sub-degree higher education in the US at community colleges and the prices for public in-state universities don’t look bad (though presumably they’re subsidized by the state). But even at public universities, out of state students are paying over 18,000 dollars a year in tuition on average.

    So I think the answer is that you can’t make a profit even on degrees that are cheap to teach (philosophy is apparently cheapest) at the current UK rates, unless possibly you’re teaching foundation degrees in FE colleges (the nearest equivalent to community colleges).

    How long it’ll be before tuition fees go up is unclear (though I’m sure they will go up), but I suspect it’ll take a while before they actually cover the costs of undergraduate courses. Even Cameron will think twice before hitting the middle classes with an extra 3500 pounds a year charge.

    When they do raise the cap on tuition fees to cost or above, so there is actual cost competition between universities, the question is whether colleges will be able to price their degrees correctly. It’s OK for Oxford and Cambridge, who can charge what they like. But I suspect that a lot of ‘ordinary’ universities are going to get it badly wrong at first, because it’s not at all clear what a reasonable premium is for a degree at one particular university rather than the same degree elsewhere. Is it worth paying more for a history degree at KCL than one from Queen Mary or Oxford Brookes? How much more is a degree from Leeds University worth than one from Leeds Metropolitan University? I foresee a slew of financially disastrous decisions to start with (and on current form I would expect KCL to make some of them).

    The other big problem for UK universities (except possibly Oxford and Cambridge) is that they haven’t got big enough endowments to give substantial financial support to a lot of students as a lot of US colleges can. KCL, in particular, ramped up their endowment level hugely between 1994 and 2002, but still have endowment per student levels that are one-twentieth of the University of Texas (far from being the richest US university).

    Since we do seem to be moving towards a US-style higher education system, with mass participation, but increasing disparity between institutions, the question is whether we can avoid some of the other disadvantages of the US system (which gaining some of its advantages). It would be good to hold onto the top lecturers actually doing their share of teaching, so even callow 1st years could get the chance of tutorials with Chris Wickham or David Starkey. If you have a more formal hierarchy of institutions, it makes it harder for good researchers at lower-ranked institutions to get jobs in elite universities, even if they may deserve it. And the treatment of humanities PhDs in the UK, however tough it may be sometimes, still strikes me as a lot better than in the US.

    dr ngo – you’ve been a professor for more than 30 years and you haven’t come across the controversy as to whether or not Adam had a navel? Shame on you.


    • I must admit I was omitting Adam (and Eve, for that matter) from “everybody” when I made my original statement. My bad.

      In partial defense, it wasn’t actually “navel” in the original version of my aphorism. I cleaned it up in deference to your delicate sensibilities and those of your readers.


  4. The University of the Highlands and Islands you mention, was described in the Times Ed Supplement, politely, as a useful educational resource. That is where it still lies, apart from two subjects, and one, as far as I am aware, is not a degree level course. The Environmental Research Institute is now being merged with the local branch, which should lift the profile a bit and broaden out the degree options. At present it mostly provides for F.E. studies and skilling up vocational students, we need more of the latter.

    It is imperative that there is honesty about the F.E. and H.E. educational structures, how they can interlink, how they may not, rather than call everything in sight a university. It dilutes systems of learning at every level,and in so doing, dilutes respect for what learning and training does exist.


    • A relative of mine is actually currently studying at UHI, doing a sub-degree course at Highland Theological College. He’s enjoying it and finding it useful, but I agree that it’s a rather different kind of course than you’d get from the traditional universities.

      But I think difficulties about what a university is for reflects a broader problem within British (and especially English) society, a persistent view that only the education of the elite matters (whether that’s the social elite or the intellectual elite). It’s the same attitude that implies that the only universities that matter are Oxbridge, that grammar schools are the answer to every educational problem, and that further education is simply not worth discussing. It is because of this persistent view that the less academic are not worth bothering with that those who want to educate more than just the top 25% of the population are forced into pretending that all qualifications are equivalent. The misguided attempts to turn every institution of higher education into a university and every course they do into a degree is because of the widespread view that these are the only kind of courses that are worthwhile.

      There is a false binary prevalent in which a qualification from the University of Chichester is either the exact equivalent of a degree from Oxford, or a worthless bit of paper. Instead we should be prepared to admit that some degrees are more valuable than others, without implying that therefore others are pointless. It’s also perfectly possible to say that some vocational qualifications are not equivalent in difficulty to some academic qualifications without denying the achievements of those who attain them. I think it might have been better for polytechnics to have continued more in their emphasis on applied degrees (and innovative teaching methods) rather than being forced into the mould of traditional research universities. But it was hard to do that when there was a persistent view from Oxbridge educated politicians that polytechnics and vocational education were for other people’s children and that they were fundamentally unimportant.


      • We are agreeing here.

        There is one addition to the discussion regarding polytechnics; that is that the long-standing, innovative polytechnics, like Brunel, led the way in making the traditional universities innovate with their training and academic structures. Places like Oxbridge had to admit the new ideas of the real world; there were employers who loudly stated they wanted qualified professionals who could apply not just theorise. There had to be a wider response.

        The polytechnic’s researched and were respected. F.E’s that have had elevation thrust upon them have not had the valuable applied academic and pure academic apprenticeship of the polytechnics.

        A further point. There is an international league table of academic institutions, not just elitism solely based in the U.K. We are now in tough times, even if we were not, students who aspire to challenge, need to have a nationally and/or internationally elite university training.

        A human resource manager based in London, who I spoke to in better economic times, explained to me that the first filtering of applications from U K applicants, is done by university attended. All their prospective employees were selected from what were considered the top 20 UK universities.


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