Do we have too many universities?

31 Jul

July 2014

By Ian Toone, Principal Officer (Education)

The United Kingdom has over 150 universities, colleges of higher education and specialist conservatoires, in addition to the many colleges of further education which also offer undergraduate degree courses.  Is this too many?

The question has recently been posed by Sir Roderick Floud, former president of Universities UK and recently retired provost of Gresham College, a London-based independent higher education institution which specialises in giving free public lectures.  Sir Roderick claims that having so many higher education institutions is unnecessary and inefficient.  He questions why cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, Oxford and London (and one could, presumably, add Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham) need more than one university.  London alone has some 40 universities within the M25. 

In the last ten years, universities in Wales have been reduced from 15 down to nine, largely as a result of strategic action by the Welsh Government.  Should England, Scotland and Northern Ireland follow suit?  The UK Parliament seems to be going in the opposite direction, at least so far as England is concerned.  The Coalition Government has conferred official university status on a number of, largely, small private institutions and has signalled that more will follow.

Sir Roderick argues for more specialisation within higher education.  For example, he suggests that universities such as Oxford and Cambridge should concentrate on research or postgraduate studies, leaving others to focus on undergraduate programmes.  He believes that there are too many universities trying to do too many different things – from research and teaching to starting up new companies and even running bus services. 

The rise in the number of universities has two major historical precursors.  The first is the demise of polytechnics in 1992, when, under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, all polytechnics in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and central institutions in Scotland) were allowed to designate themselves as universities and award their own degrees (which were previously validated and awarded by the UK Council for Academic Awards).  Many of these institutions drifted from their original mission of providing applied education for professional practice (for example, social work, teaching, engineering, law, management, town planning and public administration) and started to copy the established universities in offering more purely academic courses and undertaking research.

A second reason for the recent expansion of universities is the political policy of widening access, so that whereas in the 1960s only 20% of school leavers went to university, it is now expected that up to 50% will do so.  This can be partly explained by the fact that the modern jobs market requires a higher skill level, although there are many people who believe that too many young people are being pushed into doing degree courses at the expense of undertaking vocational training, leading to a shortage of skilled craftspeople in, for example, plumbing, construction, carpentry and electrical work. 

What do you think? 

Should we be investing more in apprenticeships and on-the-job vocational training rather than increasing university places? 
Should the number of universities be reduced by merging some and closing others? 
Should universities become more specialised rather than trying to do too much? 
Please let us know your views (below).

[Article written for August 2014 Your Voice.] 

Universities: cause for complaint?


Results of poll (27 June – 13 October 2014) 
Do we have too many universities in the UK?    
  • Yes: 75% (38 votes)
  • No: 25%, (13 votes)

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13 Responses to “Do we have too many universities?”

  1. Alison Taylor 02. Jul, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    I think there are too many overall in the UK. I think Scotland should reduce honours degree studying from 4 years to 3 years. This is being trialled by Abertay in Dundee.

    Proper planned apprenticeships should be readily available for school leavers who have no desire to go to university. Just because you may have the qualifications to go to university does not mean that is the only path into work. Why not give tax incentives to companies to take on apprentices who are paid the minimum wage (so they can afford to live) and have on the job training and/or day release with assessment? They need to be meaningful and only be used where the job could not be done without extra training.

    Our education establishments are supposed to equip people for the job market, not just keep them occupied as long as possible and off the unemployment figures. Do we take too long to do this? At least in Scotland our young people can leave school at 16 and start work.

  2. Alison Taylor 02. Jul, 2014 at 3:13 pm #

    It needs to be remembered that school leavers who live in Scotland and choose to go to University in Scotland pay no tuition fees. However if they go to University elsewhere in the UK they have to pay tuition fees. This would have an impact on reducing the number of universities by getting them to specialise. Scotland’s school leavers generally do not consider universities outside Scotland due to the increase in loans required to pay the tuition fees.

  3. Richard Fraser 24. Jul, 2014 at 9:33 am #

    HEPI: ‘Only Connect’: Is there still a higher education sector?

  4. Vynor Hill 21. Aug, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    I really like the idea of universities who only function as post graduate research institutions. Of course these might not actually be universities since there would be no traditional tutor/student interaction and no lectures in the usual sense.

    With regard to the amount of universities, these should be adequate to cope with the number of students (both home and from abroad) who wish to study here. One would not have a university for the kudos it gave to a city, but for the need and specialism it provided.

    More controversially I hold the view that university is for the most intelligent members of society. It is a clear, cold fact that our population varies in intelligence from the hyper to those who attend our special schools and require care for life. It is a mark of a good society that can cater for everyone, equally. If university is about high academic study, then those capable of that should attend. There should be institutions specifically for those who want to learn a trade but can not work for a degree and there should be apprenticeships provided for hands on work training. Such a spread of provision would cater for most of our young, post school population. Statistically, therefore, I believe the government is wrong to insist that fifty percent of school leavers attend university. Not only does this debase such places and the qualifications that they offer, but such study is patently unsuitable for fifty percent of these young adults.

    To suggest that non university school leavers are any worse or better than those who attend would be divisive and unpleasant; everyone has a place in society, but educational needs differ and these should be recognised and catered for – from birth to the end of this phase of a person’s life.

  5. Adrian Dulston 26. Aug, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    Students should have their skills and gifts identified at different stages of their academic paths so that certain career areas are highlighted to them whether academically or otherwise. At the other end, we should be in a position to offer them different routes based on their identified gifts although room left to change path as these gifts become more apparent. At the very least we have offered them responses to their acquired education.

    Universities should really be places for further education at a higher level if needs be, otherwise reinventing Polytechnics in forms of apprenticeships or better model pathways are the way forward – we should look at the German model.

    I am for apprenticeship or similar pathways which respond to UK needs particularly in the area of energy and food production. Also, students need opportunities in the area of self sufficiency so that they do not feel the burden of dependency that our current economic model provides and gain personal confidence e.g. the value of self sufficient food/energy at both the National and local level. Their link in a community based chain enhances community cohesion and makes for stronger individuals working in community.

  6. Richard Fraser 08. Sep, 2014 at 11:57 am #

    BBC report on Welsh universities:

  7. Kay-Lesley Hallam Black 10. Sep, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    I think there are far too many universities and far too many people doing courses of little merit.

    We need to go right back to the 1944 Education Act, where we were supposed to have secondary modern schools, as well as the first technical schools, and grammar schools, which were all of equal funding and of equal merit. Secondary moderns were supposed to train our plumbers and our carpenters and bricklayers, all our skilled craftsman, to a high level.

    I understand in Germany that if you want to go work in a shop you do a qualification in retail management and you feel that you are doing something of value. Now we’ve lost all that – that’s all been deemed inferior, and polytechnics have been deemed as inferior, so everybody wants to go to uni.

    I’ve got a prime example of that, of where we’ve gone very pear-shaped, in that XXX University is excellent for XXXX and XXXXX but the law school is not terribly well respected.

    All these places are diversifying, adding faculties that they think are academic and high status in order to get the money in and that’s where it’s gone pear-shaped.

    So I don’t know what the answer is, whether to make half of the staff in universities redundant and go back to having, as we do in secondary education, sort of magnet schools, and going back to science and technology universities, AKA the old polytechnics, but I think we’ve gone very wrong in what we regard as value.

    We don’t value our bricklayers, our plumbers/heating engineers, our builders. I’ve had real craftsmen working on my house but their type of intelligence isn’t respected. They told me, when they found out that I was a teacher, that they were made to feel inferior because they didn’t go to uni.

    There’s a much wider question here about the value our society places on each individual human being.

    • Joyce Watts 11. Sep, 2014 at 9:08 am #

      Well said Kay-Lesley Hallam Black. No organisation could run without the people who support the structure and infra-structure.

      I can still picture the principle of the college I attended giving us her final ‘words of wisdom’ before we left to embark on our teaching careers; which were, amongst others, ” when you join your school, always remember to show your respect for the cleaners, caretaking staff and dinner ladies, they are just as valuable to the school as you are,without them you would not be able to work; they are part of the team that keeps the wheels turning.

      They were not her only words of wisdom, and she said them to us in 1976.

  8. Retired childcare member 12. Sep, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

    Early 20th century

    Few universities. Oxford and Cambridge places of real learning (but also attended by sons of wealthy families – there mainly to ‘enjoy themselves’).


    Real social mobility and MANY universities – but sometimes subjects taught not leading to employment (in the way MANY hairdressers are now bring trained without there then being jobs for them).

    Is the fact that students now borrow the cost of university fees – to be repaid when they then earn more than a certain amount – encouraging debt?


    Social mobility in full swing at the time! One metalwork teacher in a secondary modern school refused to put all his pupils in for exams – as his Head Teacher told him to – but only the ones he considered suitable to do so. (He said there were – and always will be – some people who are best suited to being dustmen and roadmen, and the country will always need them.)

    When he retired, the Head got him back out of retirement as he found he could not manage without him.


    Manual work, on the whole, appears to be ‘looked down on’ more than other types of work. Does this mean manual workers now often feel undervalued and take less pride in their work than previously – and sadly get less ‘job satisfaction’? Is this the effect of universities being promoted as the best/only ‘way’?

    Until 1980s

    Concern about children having mental health problems NOT very obvious.


    Real concern about children having mental health problems.

  9. Richard Fraser 13. Oct, 2014 at 10:53 am #

    For poll results, see above.

  10. Richard Fraser 27. Oct, 2015 at 9:11 am #

    Call to end ‘closed shop’ (BBC News)

  11. Richard Fraser 25. Nov, 2015 at 11:59 am #

    “Why are so many European universities merging?” (BBC)

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