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.]
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)