The UK has developed several universities that regularly sit near the top of the world league tables. Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, LSE and Imperial are world beaters. Others in the Russell Group maintain high standards. The world’s talent still beats a path to their doors. This should be a strength for the UK. It is something we should welcome and foster.
The UK has a bad habit of denigrating some of its most successful institutions and businesses, and failing to reinforce success. In an increasingly competitive world we need to get better at backing the best in our country, and expanding it on a global scale. The US has done a great job in backing Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other high flying American schools. We need to catch up.
The big difference between the US elite and the UK elite is a question of money. The US government has offered very favourable tax breaks to encourage donations to their universities. The institutions themselves have followed intense and successful ex alumni and corporate programmes to encourage more giving. The leading Colleges have built large endowments, giving the universities flexibility to hire the best faculty members, to finance top level research, and to provide bursaries and scholarships to talented energetic young people without much income to support themselves. It has proved a heady mixture.
They have added to their success by fostering strong links with venture capital and other investors. They come to the campus to assess the quality of research and to put money into developing the best ideas. The university and the faculty members can participate in the commercial success of their applications and their break throughs.
Oxford and Cambridge are moving in the same direction, but they need to raise more money than they currently enjoy to match the US levels. The City of London and the great universities need to work ever more closely together. Gone are the days when the best academics, the Nobel prize winners, would automatically wish to come to Oxbridge whatever the terms. They look for higher salaries. They expect substantial money for laboratory facilities and suport staff in sciences. Even the humanities Professors now would like research assistants, and plenty of office accommodation and support for their teams.
The arrival of many very hard working and intelligent Asians in the top US and UK universities is changing things again. For the moment it is a helpful development. It gives the Anglo Saxon institutions a more global feel, it increases the competition for places and money, and adds a new Asian perspective to studies and research. We should regard this as partly a transitional phase. The Chinese in particular will want to learn how we and the US run great universities. They will wish to transfer some of the talent and the organisational genius to their own institutions. They are on the look out for our best ideas and our best people.
The UK needs to concentrate on promoting the policies that help our best catch up with the financial might of the leading Americans. It needs to develop more joint working between the groves of Academe and the workshop of private equity. OFFA is not helpful in this connection, as we have discussed before. Nor is too much box ticking in research assessment. Some blue sky research requires risk taking. Some will flop. It is about judging people, more than trying to construct a perfect audit and a set of questions which will infallibly come to the right answer over who should have the money.
Listening to Oxford academics at an undergraduate College on Saturday night, they are understandably preoccupied by seeking grants and finding sources of money to maintain their work. As largely independent institutions they cannot be exempt from some of the pressures of the fund raising marketplace. As world leaders they could hope for an answer at national and university level which provides more money overall to reinforce this UK success.