Elite universities


¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 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.


  1. Bill
    March 6, 2012

    Agree. The English universities have the priceless asset of the English language through which to deliver their courses. And John you are right to say that the Chinese will want to learn and then imitate our great institutions. They are, after all, copying German engineering and French viniculture.

    I was speaking to a South African who decided that he son could read medicine as well at an Indian university as at a British one, and for less cost – though Indian expertise was often originally gained from England in the first place. I remember Indian cardiologists at the John Radcliffe in the 1970s. Similarly the University of Singapore has been headhunting British academics and paying them more than they would earn at home. Already the various metrics by which global academic influence is measured are being hit by Asian universities. All this, of course, shows how stupid and short-sighted the University of Wales has been to cut back on its overseas courses. In the meanwhile I wish Oxford well as it struggles to improve its governance. Maybe Chris Patten is the man to do this. The only thing that worries me is that when I read some of the student journalism circulating Oxford, it sounds horribly like the BBC. One would have hoped to hear a sharper more critical set of voices…

    1. lifelogic
      March 6, 2012

      Indeed much that comes out of Oxford, like Cameron, does sound rather like the BBC – wrong on most things – the ever bigger state, green renewable tosh, ever more EU and over taxation/regulation of everything. Lord Patten is BBC think to the core alas.

      1. John Maynard
        March 8, 2012

        That’s probably fair comment, but an even more glaring anomaly on John’s list is the “quaint” LSE.

        This institution (which got into media trouble over money raising-ed) has been teaching the exhausted and discredited notions of Fabian socialism for as long as I can remember.

        It’s inclusion as a “top institution” is rather ridiculous, and points up flaws in the system of ranking.

        Given the huge contribution of the UK in the field of economics, we badly need a school teaching/researching economics with a fresh, open and pioneering approach, and adopting the highest standards – a sort of anti-LSE.

        Reply: The LSE does sit high up the League tables, has many talented scholars and teaches more widely than you suggest.

  2. lifelogic
    March 6, 2012

    Basic training of undergraduates and research & development are really separate business activities with some overlap. I see little point in rationing the former, as is so often done, where students are capable of doing the course and can pay the full fees themselves. Clearly the university need to take care not to junk the “Oxford University” brand, for example, but that can be managed without too much rationing so why turn customers away?

    There is good tax relief for both charitable giving and for R&D in the UK at the moment. The last thing we want is governments, politicians and people like Huhne & Porritt with largely religious agendas deciding which areas of “science” are worthy of grant funding. Leave the money with individuals and let them decide how best to do research and what research to do. Whether at Universities or elsewhere as suits them best.

    The main difference in the US is that richer individuals are still left with some money after taxes. In the UK it is nearly all grabbed by Mr Osbourne and the state and largely wasted. The US also have a larger & richer home market to spread the development costs over.

    Reply: The government does provide research funding and does have views on what to spend it on, and has done for many years

    1. lifelogic
      March 6, 2012

      What is just as important is some excellent technical colleges. Teaching good practical skill in engineering, building, manufacture, finance, business, marketing and the like.

    2. Disaffected
      March 6, 2012

      Waste of a blog. It appears to me Mr Cable has been given free reign to implement his socialist plans to dumb down all universities and I fail to see what Mr Willetts has done full stop. Social engineering gathers pace where Labour left off. It was alleged there were to be a bonfire of quangos- still waiting. Now a quango non-job appointment to Prof Ebdon. Is this not Mr Willetts job???

    3. lifelogic
      March 6, 2012

      To reply:

      Indeed the government do make decisions – let us hope they put some decent scientists/engineers in charge of where to put the funds and not the religious or political priests of the PR or green religions.

      Most politicians do not have a clue about science/engineering or even economics and are mainly looking for political PR gimmicks. For example genetic engineering and nuclear energy look like very good areas but are not very good for politicians with bbc think.

      1. lifelogic
        March 6, 2012

        The are more likely to fund a pointless man to the Moon or Mars mission especially if it makes good TV footage.

    4. colliemum
      March 6, 2012

      I’m replying to your reply to lifelogic, where you say:

      “Reply: The government does provide research funding and does have views on what to spend it on, and has done for many years.”

      Yes indeed, we know that.
      But perhaps you are not aware of how such funding is allocated.
      Have a look at the report about government funding by the GWPF, where they give shocking figures, and state:

      “the EPSRC are making top down decisions about which areas should receive more funding and which ones less, rather than judging individual applications on their own intrinsic merit.

      As a result certain areas of science are having all funding withdrawn, for, at the least, the next year. For instance PhD fellowships will no longer be available for Engineering graduates, and will be limited to only Statistics & Applied Probability for Mathematicians, as the EPSRC website makes clear.”

      Link: http://www.thegwpf.org/science-news/5061-green-obsession-how-climate-research-starves-other-scientists-of-funding.html

      It is the post-grad research which is vitally important for universities’ standing on the global scale.
      How is that standing helped when e.g. post-grad engineering gets no funding, but anything to do with ‘climate change’ does?
      Even if one is a full believer in climate change, shouldn’t the question be asked how ‘climate change mitigation’ research will fare in real life, when there are no actual engineers to translate such research into workable applications?

      On the other hand, why not designate Oxbridge as the only true UK universities, give them all the money, and let all other UK universities either wither on the vine or turn them into institutions where people don’t learn much but will get a useless certificate at the end.

      Wasting young people’s minds on undemanding, make-believe ‘academic’ learning is such a horrible waste that those who condone it deserve to be called out on their criminal behaviour.

      1. lifelogic
        March 6, 2012

        “Climate research starves other scientists of funding” indeed I have little doubt of this it. It is now a very powerful religion indeed with many TV evangelists. All three parties have swallowed the guff as they think it will win them votes. This especially as the schools and the BBC have now indoctrinated all your children into this new belief system.

      2. uanime5
        March 6, 2012

        Oxbridge simply cannot train enough graduates that have the skills employers want. There’d be a shortage of doctors after the first year.

      3. wab
        March 6, 2012

        “Why not designate Oxbridge as the only true UK universities, give them all the money?”

        Presumably you are taking the piss. While it is important for the UK that Oxbridge does well, it is also important that the UK have other universities, and good research and (especially) good teaching is not the preserve of Oxbridge. For example, Alec Jeffreys did his ground-breaking research in Leicester, not Oxbridge. And Imperial is obviously one of the top universities in the world.

        1. colliemum
          March 7, 2012

          I was indeed taking the piss, glad you noticed!

    5. lifelogic
      March 6, 2012

      I see that Conservative MP Mark Pritchard has resigned from a party position due to concerns over an “increasing number” of government policies, including those on immigration and Europe.

      Does anyone not have confidence in Cameron and his “veto” and his tax borrow and waste agenda. What is the different between this government and the last? Certainly not very much so far that I can see in action perhaps the odd words but little more.

      1. Disaffected
        March 7, 2012

        It was NOT a veto. Not signing the EU Treaty did not stop it going ahead. Therefore no matter how Mr Cameron speciously dresses it up it was NOT a veto. John should know better than to perpetuate this myth.

        Russia’s veto for preventing military action against Syria is a veto it is blocking other countries from taking military action. Good for them. Russia was misled over Libya and Mr Cameron should look at himself and accept the blame for his failure to get Russian support. Not being straight about his true intentions- tough. It pays to be honest and act with integrity. Most worryingly he is now spinning about Iran and their weapons.

  3. Mike Stallard
    March 6, 2012

    This worries me more than somewhat.

    In the first place, Universities have nothing to do with national pride or the government or elitism or equality. They are simply – or should be – about academic excellence for its own sake. Education is its own reward. All the greatest thinkers have believed this. That is why they are the greatest thinkers.
    The government has made a total horlicks of the secondary school system. God forbid it should move its great big foot onto our universities.

    Secondly, Universities may or may not be expensive. But they are not about money. As soon as they are, they have sold the pass. Professors who are in it for the cash ought to be looking at themselves very carefully indeed. These very clever people can very, very soon become very, very corrupt (UEA, e mails and global warming, for instance? The scandal over the poetry professorship?)

    Finally, Magdalene College was once a Christian College. (The name might give a clue here.) If you fill up universities with people who are from a Confucian, a Communist, a Hindu and a Muslim background, we have to ask whether the same Christian values will be maintained?

    1. Rebecca Hanson
      March 6, 2012

      I’m also uncomfortable with this repeated use of the word elite.

      Here’s the definition of elite from wiki:
      “An elite in political and sociological theory, is a small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth and/or political power.”

      I have no desire to control political power. My desire is instead to see political power in this country disseminated to all who have relevant experience to contribute to the process or the ability to analyse and make recommendations regarding complex decisions. I want to be a conduit for truth rather than a decider of it.

      My focus is on the quality of the way this country is run not on my personal power or wealth and I always felt that the vast majority of my peers at Cambridge shared that value system. I went to Clare college which recently selected Dr Alice Welbourne to be its Alumnus of the year and I would like to warmly invite readers of this blog to listen to her acceptance speech which you can find here:

      For many of us the opportunity to go to Oxbridge is gift which we will repay with an unending sense of duty. I expect to be judged entirely on my merits as a person and I am exceptionally wary of opportunities which are offered by people because of my ‘Oxbridge graduate’ status (which usually turn out to be toxic anyway).

      I know many of my contemporaries from Cambridge live their lives according to similar values – values where it matters not who we know, where we have been or what we have achieved but who we are, how we live our lives, how observational and in touch with the realities around us and how we continue to seek wider and wider experience.

      Please can we continue to nurture these values at our top university rather than to try to force them to be ‘elite’.

      1. Mike Stallard
        March 6, 2012

        “For many of us the opportunity to go to Oxbridge is gift which we will repay with an unending sense of duty”


      2. outsider
        March 6, 2012

        Elite has acquired ufortunate overtones of exclusion in our chippy world. Perhaps the trendier term “world-class” would be better.

        1. Rebecca Hanson
          March 8, 2012

          I think it’s important to see that world class means different things to different people outsider. It’s tempting to think it means ‘with the most knowledge, power or money’ or something like that but those who’ve explored these things deeply understand the importance of valuing the ways in which people think about things (being deeply observational and with highly developed skills in critical thinking).

          We should always be aware that the personal skills are very difficult to measure but are tremendously important.

    2. Bill
      March 6, 2012

      Yes, and likewise with Trinity College, Corpus Christi, Christ Church, Jesus College…

  4. oldtimer
    March 6, 2012

    My own college is busy fund raising (several millions needed) to expand its accommodation and facilities. One aspect of which I have become aware is the significant difference in the proportion of alumni who donate to their colleges/universities. In Oxford I think it varies between c15% and 25% depending on the college. In the USA, IIRC, it is in the 30-40% range. Closing that gap requires a significant change in thinking by UK graduates. Even if or when that occurs, it seems to me that Universities will continue to depend on the major donors to fund their ambitions, especially those from overseas.

  5. Robert Christopher
    March 6, 2012

    “The UK has a bad habit of denigrating some of its most successful institutions …”

    Mike Stallard is right. A university is a place to get away from the routine worries so that time can be set aside to excel in a chosen discipline: academic excellence, and not become an exam passing machine with the lowest cost per exam passed.

    Too many institutions and concepts are being maligned and consequently much is becoming dysfunctional: Parliament(MP’s expenses and EU domination), finances (UK support for the failed audited EU and the rule breaking Eurozone), scientific method (the global warming delusion!), Engineering (windmill and bio-fuel scams), FOI(UEA CRU intransigence), school exams (excellence avoided and exams made easier), marriage (being redefined by Cameron), management (tick box culture), families (social services and poor secret family court decisions), taxes (money wasted by the State), our underfunded armed forces (as opposed to the MOD), and judgement(PC mentality).

    Leader? National interest? Nation? Childhood? Green belt?

    And Tory? What does that mean? It’s been taken out of the dictionary!

    This wearing down of standards has always happened to some extent, it is to be expected and is part of the rough and tumble of day to day life, but it is rare for our leaders to not recognise this and ‘forget’ to inspire us. For them to join in the desecration is even rarer!

    I am off for a cup of tea. At least that is still what it was, if you buy the right brand!

    1. John Maynard
      March 8, 2012

      Twinings ? Packed in Poland ?

  6. Leslie Singleton
    March 6, 2012

    A lot of the problem is the socialist idea that half should go to University–but for the daft “Degrees” that result more money would be available for the best. How long before some Government seeking popularity sets a quota for D.Phils? There is nothing wrong with Technical Colleges and the like, by the way, far from it, for people, unlike myself, who can fix things, like cars. The trouble is that now the very definition of what a Degree is or was has been diluted, beyond repair I fear.

  7. Neil Craig
    March 6, 2012

    Funding through tax breaks on donations would weaken the stranglehold of government and thus political correctness. Not destroy it since US universities are still very PC but a step in the right direction.

    Currenlty university academia is forced to accept everything government wants from promoting catastrophic global warming lies to making sure they have enough (people chosen by politically correct characteristics-ed) in maths studies.

    1. lifelogic
      March 6, 2012

      “people chosen by politically correct characteristics-ed” I am most interested to know what this editing replaced?

  8. NickW
    March 6, 2012

    It is a pity that the great universities of the world are not encouraged to teach and foster wisdom rather than knowledge.

    Our world’s geniuses have now discovered how to make equity, financial, and commodity trades in nanoseconds, using high level computer algorithms.

    The markets are being manipulated by billions of trades a second.

    The retail investor is vital to the financial industry; he is the one who loses all the money that goes into the bankers pockets. The financial industry no longer serves society, it has enslaved it.

    If the result of giving people a top class education is that they use their knowledge to enrich themselves and destroy the foundations of society, perhaps we should be more careful what we wish for?


  9. Caterpillar
    March 6, 2012

    JR, sorry first and second attempt seem corrupted. Just don’t post if they turned out as jibberish. Thanks.

    1. Caterpillar
      March 6, 2012

      (Replacement to first section)

      I don’t doubt that there is talent in the list of HEIs mentioned, but I do have a tendency to fear league tables and their consequences. Some examples;
      (i) I have heard it said that some business schools reduced the number of years in management experience required to enter MBA programmes such that the salary multiplier measure between entry and exit was higher c.f. say career change MBA programmes where some graduates having a criticality, MSc/MA=> understanding of new knowledge creation in discipline, PhD/DPhil => creation of new knowledge in the discipline, has been eroded more at the doctorate end than the ug end (distortions due to learning outcomes / competence assessment changes along the chain). In some area new knowledge might now be an F rather than a Cl, or an homologous series rather than an existing compound, or sadly a hospitality questionnaire to small hotels on www use with a little bit of factor analysis and follow-up interview. Worse, there might now only be research process in the doctorate and not much new at all. And unbelievably there is now the diffusion of the taught/professional doctorate. Bubble?

      1. Caterpillar
        March 6, 2012

        Sorry, this post failed again. I have now submitted in done in sections.

  10. James Reade
    March 6, 2012

    I tend to agree with much of what you say here John, although I have some concerns that universities should be getting their research funding from non-governmental sources – are you suggesting most of that income, or just some? Of course, all funders will have their own desires for the outcomes of that research, potentially biasing it, but in general I find that the UK government funding my research currently is not leading me to ensure all my research finding support government policy (as I’m sure you’re well aware!).

    The bottom line is that much research, the blue sky thinking you mention, has externalities – we are all better off generally for a lot of the research that’s been carried out in universities over the years, and left to the market alone, much of this research simply would not be funded. So there does need to be some funding from government, but ideally as you say not in a box ticking exercise, which to a large extent is what the RAE and REF are.

    The vast majority of academics are highly self-motivated – you may call it vanity or whatever, but they know it’s in their interest to do the things they need to do, and do them well – to teach, research and administer. Of course some are lazy, but the more a system of checking up on everything grows, as it is doing, the less those of us that are motivated to be as good as we can at everything will be motivated to be as we get sick and tired of the arbitrary hurdles we need to jump over.

    On OFFA, I don’t see why in principle it has to be a bad idea. I know all your right-wingers have something against Ebdon, but the principle of ensuring that access is based on merit alone, not background, is hugely important. But also, as one of your commenters has said, the schooling system matters here – there’s often light and day between a candidate from a private school and a comprehensive when they pitch up at university, even if the innate ability in the two is essentially the same.

    I’m also surprised not to see many comments moaning about the level of overseas students in the UK – those that, as you point out, denigrate the success of our universities in attracting thousands of students from East Asia to study here.

    1. wab
      March 6, 2012

      “The principle of ensuring that access is based on merit alone, not background, is hugely important.”

      Unfortunately Ebdon is concerned about quotas, not about merit. Are you yourself admitting candidates to Birmingham based on background rather than merit? No, I didn’t think so.

      The country is wasting millions and millions of pounds on Ebdon and on compliance positions in universities. That money would be far better spent on student bursaries.

      1. James Reade
        March 9, 2012

        Can you provide me with the evidence behind this assertion regarding Ebdon? I’m prepared to give the man the benefit of the doubt – I don’t know enough to be able yet to make such strong statements. Why is it you’re willing to? How do you know he’s just about quotas and not merit?

    2. Rebecca Hanson
      March 7, 2012

      I’ve come up with a proposal which I think might work James – it’s in the comments to this blog:

      Any thoughts? (other comments welcome too).

      1. James Reade
        March 9, 2012

        Hi Rebecca,

        As someone that has interviewed students trying to get into Oxford (cue everyone to have an even lower still opinion of me), I can well understand the pattern you talk about. Having been a student of a comprehensive myself and only really exposed to middle/upper class students on getting to university in Durham then Oxford, I fully appreciate the problems guys coming from disadvantaged backgrounds have when trying to get into somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge.

        They just don’t come across as well – not as confident, not as broadened and experienced – and of course it’s no fault of their own, but it’s hard to get past that in an interview context – like you say, these guys get into non-interviewing universities and thrive which is great.

        In the college I interviewed on behalf of, for PPE, we looked for evidence students would be hard working, not that they were geniuses – and we didn’t get the stars usually – they go to your Trinitys and Mertons and so on. That ruled out some of the students you could tell for whom getting into Oxford was the end in itself and they wouldn’t work once here, would just get involved in societies and the high life, hence at least in theory created a greater chance of disadvantaged students getting in.

        And of course, the tragedy of it all is that it’s these kinds of students I think that would benefit the most from the intensive student experience at Oxford – the 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 tutorials that really enable someone to grow both academically and more generally.

        I think your solution is fine in principle, but I’m not sure how implementable it is. It’s very hard to get that interview impression out of mind when discussing later on after interviews who should get the offers and who shouldn’t. You almost wonder whether the system might work better if there were not interviews – some other set of criteria that enabled students from all backgrounds to signal their true ability better than all the qualifications and personal statements and references combined…

        Reply Yes, but. Surely we should also expect young people from any background to understand that if you want to go to a top university you individually need to make an effort – I remember ransacking local libraries to try to read more widely before facing an Oxford interview, as the school library could not do the job. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds understand that if they want to to be Premier footballers or Olympic athletes they need to train, train and train again. It’s the same thing if you want to be good academically.

  11. Damien
    March 6, 2012

    I ask myself why is the Oxford University China Centre being built in Oxford and not in China? I realise that Oxford has a suite in an office in HK but not much more.

    Oxford University is a top global brand in education and research and should seriously explore opening up in China in just the same way Rolls Royce , ARUP, Lloyds Register etc.

    1. lifelogic
      March 6, 2012

      Indeed the top university brands Oxbridge and the rest are hugely under exploited world wide – they certainly should be.

    2. James Reade
      March 7, 2012

      The simple reason is Oxford is behind the times! Of course, its global brand and position relative to UK universities means it can afford to still be and attract global interest – I’m pretty sure that despite the numerous campuses of other UK universities in various parts of East Asia, the name of Oxford would still slip off the tongue of a native faster than any of those other universities. The point where the complacency this affords Oxford turns detrimental though, I’m not sure when or where that is…

  12. Mark
    March 6, 2012

    China/Hong Kong accounted for 77,765 students at UK universities last academic year.


    That is more than the total annual student immigration from all overseas countries in the early 1990s, which was about 50,000. We are now teaching them to out-compete us, not merely influencing their elites.

    University excellence is about attracting the best researchers and teachers, not educating the world at our own expense.

    1. uanime5
      March 6, 2012

      Rest assured that Chinese students have to pay more than UK students, they even pay more than English students.

    2. James Reade
      March 7, 2012

      No Mark, you’re completely wrong.

      These overseas students pay very high fees, and that means that the universities that attract them can then charge home students lower fees. So it’s beneficial to British students to have these levels of overseas students here.

      The fact is that British students simply don’t apply for MSc courses, anything postgraduate, in anything like the same volume that those from East Asia do. It’s not that they’re “taking places” of British students, British students don’t want the places.

      So the fact they are here benefits Britain in many, many ways. Yours is the first post here that I thought I’d see loads of – attempts to criticise a British success story. We are exporting a product in vast quantities.

      Remember also, it’s not like the stuff these overseas students are being taughts was learnt here and would remain here if they weren’t taught it. Academia is an international scene – if these guys were in the US, France, Germany, Australia or Japan (or anywhere essentially), they’d learn the same stuff.

      1. Mark
        March 7, 2012

        Well, James, I think it is you who is wrong. I’ve shown the figures here before, but just for your benefit I’ll show them again:

        From this table:


        you will see that fees were £2.58bn for non-EU domicile students during 2009-10 (there will be new figures for 2010-11 later this week) while from the link in my first post you will see the corresponding number of non-EU domicile students was 280,760, so the average fee paid was £9,189 across the UK. That is little different to the £9,000 charge for most English university courses, which itself does not cover all the costs.

        Indeed, the block grant to universities in England for 2012-13 has been set at £5.86bn. If fees covered costs there would be NO block grant.


        Chinese students in particular are strong in the high cost STEM subjects.

        Now, I’m sure there are institutions that do charge a fairly full cost fee to some of their overseas students, but this simply means that within the overall average there are others who are being subsidised more heavily.

  13. Alte Fritz
    March 6, 2012

    We are miles behind the Americans in developing the habit of alumni giving to their alma mater. I suspect that our institutions have chased the big donations to the exclusion of developing a habit of regular giving by alumni as soon as they graduate. Such a habit, generating a very respectable income would develop a mood of independence from the state which our universities cannot currently afford.

    1. lifelogic
      March 6, 2012

      So little money is actually left with individuals due to huge over taxation and government waste most have little left to donate. Many of those that do have funds see Universities as hot beds of lefty BBC think anyway.

  14. Stephen O
    March 6, 2012

    Good to hear this point being made. All the airtime on universities, for a very long time, has been about fairness of entry, with little or no national discussion on how they can be improved. In other words, a socialist-type debate about how to share the pie ignoring the question of how to make the pie bigger.

    It is much easier for a country with 5 ‘world beating’ universities to make it 6, than for a country with none to develop its first top tier university. Where the UK has a comparative advantage it should be building on it. Good blog!

    1. Electro-Kevin
      March 6, 2012


      So long as you mean stuffing the pie with more meat and not thinning it out with more potato.

    2. uanime5
      March 6, 2012

      The problem with 5 world beating universities is that all the other universities are generally poor quality because all the money goes to the the best universities.

      Germany doesn’t have a world beating university but they have a vast number of talented graduates because they try to give everyone a good education, rather than produce an educated elite.

      1. John Maynard
        March 8, 2012

        Germany has a much smaller university participation rate than the UK (the other side of their traditional high priority for apprenticeships), and very many third class universities.
        Their model is an interesting alternative to ours, but very far from being a paragon of virtue.

  15. David John Wilson
    March 6, 2012

    Once Scotland becomes independent, English students will under EU rules be entitled to free education at ther top Scottish Universities. The English universities will suffer from the migration of its best students to Edinburgh and St Andrews.

    1. James Matthews
      March 6, 2012

      Not for long. Fee income from English students is built into the Scottish H E funding plan. Without it they will get rapidly less attractive.. That said, Ireland has found a way round the EU rules by charging EU students for “facilities” rather than tuition. No doubt with the English funding stream cut off Scotland will discover the same loophole.

    2. James Reade
      March 7, 2012

      Erm, how big are those two universities? I don’t think a few hundred more students up there, if this scenario actually happened, is really going to affect the many similar quality English institutions. There are more pertinent threats to our universities than Scottish independence.

  16. forthurst
    March 6, 2012

    It is not clear to me whether JR is promoting the elite institutions as places where English people can be enabled to compete with the rest of the world in their careers, thereby sustaining the future of UK plc, or where the rest of the world can achieve pre-eminence by availing themselves of services provided by English SMEs which happen to be elite institutions.

    The danger of attempting to compete with others on their terms is that they may not be doing what is right for us. The elite US institutions JR refers to, largely serves a self-perpetuating oligarchy that inhabits Washington and Wall Street, both chiefly known for the destruction of other people’s liberty and prosperity.

    We need our elite institutions to serve our students; for that, we need to ensure that they are properly prepared to the standards of those who come from elsewhere e.g. Singapore where their superior education and examination system is almost a copy of that which we ourselves enjoyed before the destruction of the grammar schools.

    1. James Reade
      March 7, 2012

      Nothing like a good conspiracy theory eh?

      If people are better placed in workplaces that pay them, even low rates on apprentice schemes, than being in postgraduate (or even undergraduate) study, then they’ll do that. As study becomes more expensive and hence students have to pay themselves a bigger chunk of the cost of their investment, the numbers not going to university and instead availing themselves to firms that demand and need them will increase. It’s simple economics. No need to sit here worrying about it – let it happen.

      1. forthurst
        March 7, 2012

        There are no doubt many areas of ‘scholarship’ in which the scholar alone is the beneficiary of his study by increasing his future marketability without taking with him any relevent expertise; there are others in which the scholar not only enhances his own marketability but through his specially acquired knowledge facilitates the incomes of businesses and less skilled individuals. I would have thought an economist would believe it to be beneficial that those businesses were potentially British unless of course he had no interest in the future of this country as an entity or its people.


      2. Mark
        March 7, 2012

        Actually, the economics of education don’t work like that. Did you never read Stiglitz?


        Qualifications are “quality labels” that provide perverse incentives when left to those pursuing economic and political self interest. To get best value, it is important that screening for aptitude be done on merit, not on other criteria.

  17. Alan Wheatley
    March 6, 2012

    I do not take issue with anything you say, JR.

    Taking a broader view, one would hope the elite universities would produce the elite graduates and post-graduates, who would become the elite workers. If elite education leads to elite business success it seems likely such people would expect “elite” financial rewards. They would likely look to where best they can achieve it.

    If coalition wrangling we hear about today over the 50p Income Tax rate and the so-called Mansion Tax are a pointer to the future we may well see our elite brains draining away.

    Excessive reward in business is an indicator of a lack of competition. In such circumstances this is where government should be active to bring about a better balance.

  18. HJ
    March 6, 2012

    John Redwood: “Others in the Russell Group maintain high standards”

    Of course, many of our top universities aren’t in the Russell Group and some distinctly average ones are. Durham (ranked no.3 in the UK by The Sunday Times) isn’t. Neither are St. Andrews, York, Lancaster, Bath etc..

    The Russell Group is simply a grouping of large research-based universities. The 1994 group contains nearly as many top 20 universities (they just tend to be smaller).

  19. Bob
    March 6, 2012

    May I take the liberty of suggesting a blog post from you on the Christopher Tapping affair? I would be interested to hear your opinion on the issue.

    1. lifelogic
      March 6, 2012

      The extradition treaty is an outrage (as is the EU one) putting this man, who is clearly going no where, into 23 hours of solitary confinement for many month before trial – just to encourage him to plea bargain. This is not justice. Anyway the US has clearly recently condoned torture, in the form of water boarding and convicts very many innocent people without proper safe guards. Should we send anyone, at all, to the US given this – let alone without any evidence against them being required in the UK courts first.

  20. BobE
    March 6, 2012

    The Lib Dems will pay dearly for the lies told about tuition fees. 3 years to go.

  21. Leslie Singleton
    March 6, 2012

    Once again you have left the being moderated comment on mine above. Am I doing something wrong?

  22. Caterpillar
    March 6, 2012

    I don’t doubt that there is talent in the list of HEIs mentioned, but I do have a tendency to fear league tables and their consequences. Some examples;

    (i) I have heard it said that some business schools reduced the number of years in management experience required to enter MBA programmes such that the salary multiplier measure between entry and exit was higher c.f. say career change MBA programmes where some graduates having a < 1 multiplier,

    (ii) research rankings of UK universities (e.g. RAE as was) have traditionally put grant income on the numerator (!!!!!) – cost is good in university rankings,

    (iii) if one takes a look as some Commonwealth universities' undergrad degree specifications online, one might note that the year 3 modules of ranked universities are similar to year 2 modules of some supposed middling English HEIs, one might also note that not a full year's credits need to come from year 3 modules in some of these overseas institutes. [The UK's HEI's might not be excellent thoughout, but even the middling are pretty good if one compares, at least, undergrad programmes].

    1. Caterpillar
      March 6, 2012

      ON PHDS, DPHILS etc.
      (i) Entry onto research degrees at the top unis can sometimes be easier than at ug level. When the economy is good the freshly minted new grad can toddle off to a salary, leaving even industry funded places taking an average (but still satisfactory) student.
      (ii) When HEIs apply full costs to industry funding of doctorates it reaches the point where a company may as well do it in house, particularly as many HEIs have no concept about the minimal value in most IPR (whether looked at from a portfolio perspective or a real options perspective). Like much of the research on entrepreneurship many UK HEIs make a (confirmatory) success bias in their understanding of IPR and do not conceive the height of the wall over which they throw results. I ‘agree’ that private equity might repair this understanding, or that once the groves of Academe understand then the workshop of private equity might appear ( though I don’t like the language, didn’t the workshop not the Academe do thermodynamics?)
      (iii) The pseudo-traditional view of BSc/BA => criticality, MSc/MA=> understanding of new knowledge creation in discipline, PhD/DPhil => creation of new knowledge in the discipline, has been eroded more at the doctorate end than the ug end (distortions due to learning outcomes / competence assessment changes along the chain). In some area new knowledge might now be an F rather than a Cl, or an homologous series rather than an existing compound, or sadly a hospitality questionnaire to small hotels on www use with a little bit of factor analysis and follow-up interview. Worse, there might now only be research process in the doctorate and not much new at all. And unbelievably there is now the diffusion of the taught/professional doctorate. Bubble?

      1. mathprof
        March 9, 2012

        You are absolutely correct regarding the erosion of PhD standards. I have examined 40 or so over the last 20 years, and nowadays it is very hard to arrive at an unfavourable verdict. Universities have (in the name of “quality”, of course) defined a contribution to knowledge so vaguely that almost anything qualifies, as you have intimated. Candidates may pass despite making a risible contribution to knowledge and being only half-literate, provided that they have visited the “milestones”, achieved the “benchmarks”, and make a well-coached defence. Incidentally, of the 5 worst PhDs I examined, 3 were from (non-Oxbridge) Russell group universities. (Happily, there have also been some splendid old-fashioned PhDs that really did something new.)

        This only reflects a dumbing down across the spectrum, of course. I took early retirement 5 years ago, and even then in my field (maths/stats/computer science) MSc curricula were based on BSc material of 20 years earlier, and final-year BSc exam questions were culled from HND exams of a similar vintage. Since then it’s unlikely to have improved: class contact time has been cut further so that students now get about 50% of what they did when I started. It’s not just my old (non-Russell, to declare a possible bias) university that suffers either; recently I have come across examples from 2 very prestigious universities – one where course material on the nature of science is painfully jejune, while an economics course at the other appears not to have noticed the financial crisis.

        Too many people are worrying about inputs to university (and they should of course – Offa is not going to make things better), but we should be even more concerned about outputs. There has been a disastrous deterioration in standards running below the radar ever since the foolish expansion of student numbers started in the late 1980s. We (and especially politicians) need to stop the reflex use of phrases like “world-class” and “high standards” and recognize that they now apply only in a few cases.

        The only bright spot is that the EU through its ridiculous “Bologna process” seems determined to institutionalize medicority throughout the EU. At least we are not alone…..

  23. Bazman
    March 6, 2012

    Just privatise the whole lot. If any foreign business man wants his pig ignorant offspring to obtain an English Doctorate then let him build a wing on the university. Happened in previous centuries. This will of course denigrate the value of the university, but as only a few people could afford this could be buried along with the English aristocracies retards who rise to the top. We are in a world market now for universities and to think that they will stand or fail due to academic excellence is wrong and for swots. Now many would say this is dumbing down, but market forces are neither and all the Dons bleating about how they are are on only a few quid a month whist pondering the ins and outs of the universe in their grace and favour flats in between entertaining and ‘helping’ posh teenagers need to wise up.

    1. Bazman
      March 7, 2012

      Let then build a right wing on the uni! You know you love it. I Love it. Love it. Get some. W.

  24. uanime5
    March 6, 2012

    Given that Harvard charges $66,000 per year and repeatedly badgers graduates for more money is it any surprise that they can afford the best of everything. The only downside is that the majority of Americas will never be educated at Harvard, making it pretty useless.

    The main problem with trying to create excellent universities is that it sucks all the talent and funds from the other universities. So you get a few excellent universities which benefit a select few and everyone else has to go to mediocre universities. The net result is employers cannot find enough good graduates because the excellent universities simple cannot educate enough people and mediocre universities only produce mediocre graduates.

    The European system is far better as they have a large number of good universities which produce a large number of good graduates. Thus an employer in Germany can always find enough good engineers and scientists, while those in the UK constantly struggle.

    1. Mark
      March 7, 2012

      No university will ever educate the majority – nor should it. It’s like suggesting that everyone should play football for Manchester United and go to their football academy – are they pretty useless, or do they provide top flight international footballers?

      It is an indisputable fact of life that humans have a widely dispersed range of intellectual abilities (and also of sporting prowess). It is therefore inevitable that you cannot have universities that provide the same education for 50% of the population while also stretching the most able. You either dumb down “degrees” (which is what has been happening), or you provide more rigorous education for the most able.

      If everyone were educated in accordance with their ability, society would get more benefit from the process – but that is a process that has to start at school.

      The dumbing down of school standards is the reason why the UK no longer provides the numbers of STEM graduates from its own population.

      The other problem with cardboard degrees is that employers have no means of using the degree pass to establish whether the holder really is of top ability or not. That is why many of them now refuse to consider graduates from other than top flight universities where standards have been better maintained.

      Try to get your head around the Sitglitz paper on education economics. You might learn something:


      1. uanime5
        March 7, 2012

        I never said everyone should go to the best university, I said it was a bad idea to have excellent universities they suck all the funding from other universities. We need more good universities, not a few excellent universities that only serve the elite.

        Regarding STEM graduates the poor salaries and career prospects is why people don’t work as engineers and scientists.

        No idea why you posted a paper about screening university candidates. I suspect you were told that it was important but don’t understand it. This would explain why you couldn’t use it to back up your argument.

        1. Mark
          March 7, 2012

          If you want to be a highly paid banker, the best route is a top degree in maths or physics. Doctors are also paid very well in the UK. You will find many foreigners working in those professions in the UK because we don’t have enough supply of graduates with the skills.

          You are right that engineering jobs are not valued in the UK, because governments seem to want to destroy industry through regulation and taxation and high energy costs, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t well paid jobs for STEM graduates available.

          I’m sorry if the Stiglitz paper was beyond you – it is degree level stuff, and one of the papers that helped him win his Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2001.

  25. stred
    March 6, 2012

    British elite universities are suffering from the lack of investment income available for charities. One medical charity has cancelled all new research for this year. Some talented scientists have been made redundant in an elite institute simply because they have failed to obtain funding, as required by the management.

    The US is also having a rough time but at least they have government funded funding through the US army, which has very bright scientists in its upper ranks. They also fund non US research if they spot an opportunity.

    Continental scientists come to the UK because of the restrictions imposed by the hierarchy there. They have to wait until their professors snuff it before they can develop their ideas. The UK is much more open.

    Recently, I found that UK scientists have to pay for their essential trips to international conferences, out of taxed income . The universities will not pay unless they are invited to give a lecture. If they do not go they cannot keep up or find future funding. Only membership of professional bodies is allowable by HMRC.

    It is interesting to compare the pay of lawyers to scientists. I know a senior scientist who has invented a drug with huge potential which may treat a disease which is increasing rapidly. Her university pays the patent lawyer £500 per hour. Taking into account all the unpaid overtime, her hourly rate is £12. This scientist also runs a masters degree, teachers doctors and runs 2 other reseach projects which are important for future treatments of deadly diseases.

    I recently found that british

    1. stred
      March 6, 2012

      Sorry about the editing. Earlier submission was torpedoed by server.

  26. uanime5
    March 7, 2012

    I decided to see how the universities in the UK and other countries compare on a global scale, so I checked the QS World University Rankings and I found that the top 100 universities are located in only 19 countries.

    Below is a list of the best university in each country. The order of the information is QS ranking, university name, country.

    1 University of Cambridge United Kingdom
    2 Harvard University United States

    17 McGill University Canada
    18 ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) Switzerland

    22 University of Hong Kong Hong Kong
    25 The University of Tokyo Japan
    26 Australian National University Australia
    28 National University of Singapore (NUS) Singapore

    33 √Čcole Normale Sup√©rieure, Paris France

    42 Seoul National University Korea, South
    46 Peking University China

    52 University of Copenhagen Denmark
    53 Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg Germany

    63 University of Amsterdam Netherlands
    65 Trinity College Dublin Ireland
    68 KU Leuven Belgium

    82 The University of Auckland New Zealand
    83 Uppsala University Sweden
    87 National Taiwan University (NTU) Taiwan
    89 University of Helsinki Finland


  27. Derek Emery
    March 7, 2012

    The government can’t have it both ways. It either wants to retain these universities as top world research based centres or it wants to serve its equality agenda. These are incompatible choices . Ebdon has been put in place so it is safe to assume that that the equality agenda comes first.

    The reason the Russell Group have so far resisted resisted taking A* rote learners as opposed to their preferred A* students will fluency is to be able to maintain themselves as top research outfits. For this they need the most able with fluency and in depth understanding to have any chance of conducting world level research. This really only applies to mathematics and the sciences. Dons can easily tell A* rote learners from the fluent A*s by questioning. Remember today’s A* is lower than a C in the old GCE system so equivalent to a fail due to grade inflation. You would never have won a place at Oxbridge with Cs at GCE A level.

    There is very little chance of an extremely bright A level student from a bog standard school being stretched enough in the sciences to have this level of fluency, but every chance if he was educated at a top comprehensive or grammar. There will only be 1 or 2 in each class of an ordinary school and the teaching will nowhere near as stretching.

    I’m not sure how many rote learners or inadequately stretched students they will be forced to take, but each one reduces the potential for remaining a top research establishment.

    I don’t mind if this is government policy and they state the implications in terms of research downgrading. The world has plenty of other top research establishments. What I find objectionable is the pretence that there will be no downside for research ratings of these universities form these policies.

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