Celebrating success

Dolly the Sheep
Dolly the Sheep on display at the National Museum of Scotland
Universities are this nation’s success story and their enduring value is something to be celebrated, says Universities UK president Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, reflecting on how the sector nurtures learning and invention while pursuing value for money.

Our higher education sector is made up of a range of institutions that pursue and excel in a variety of missions and specialisms to complement the diverse needs of our complex society. They are extraordinary places: providing centres for thought, reflection, learning, growth and invention.

Universities strengthen the glue that holds society together: transforming the life opportunities of people from a wide range of backgrounds, promoting creativity and innovation through research, and supporting economic growth, generating £73bn a year into the UK economy.

‘Seeding ground’

Over the years, our universities have demonstrated their ability to ride out the vagaries of markets, fashions and policy allowing them to provide the seeding ground for many of today’s greatest life-changing discoveries such as the structure of DNA, Fibre Optics, the LCD computer screen and even the cloning of Dolly the Sheep.

The past few years have seen a significant shift in the way universities in the UK are financed, the cost of higher education and the quality expected from prospective students.

We are now operating in a more student-focused and competitive sector and there is an increasing call for universities to demonstrate their value and return on financial investment. At the same time research funding has become more selective and competitive.

At Universities UK, we have been proactively engaging in a purposeful debate on the value of universities to inform decisions about the future of higher education, its role, regulation and funding. In everything we do we need to challenge ourselves on whether we think we are providing excellent value for money to our students and other important stakeholders.
Our institutions are finding innovative and wide ranging approaches to provide high quality teaching and learning, groundbreaking research, and strong business engagement as they seek greater efficiency and effectiveness in the way they function.

By any international measure we perform well.

Research output

For the quality and impact of its research output, embracing the full spectrum of disciplines, the UK ranks first among all G8 nations for field-weighted citations. And we are extraordinarily efficient and effective at it, when you consider that the UK’s public investment is 0.5% of GDP compared to an OECD average of 0.8% with returns estimated at between 20% and 50% per year.

Our education system is a huge export sector worth £10bn a year, with considerable potential to grow. UK degrees are recognized worldwide. Our reputation for excellence in teaching and research for which we are second in the world, has ensured we remain a popular destination for international students. 425,265 students from outside the UK came to study at our universities in 2012-13. No other country, apart from the United States, can match our appeal.

This is good news for Britain. International students inject a huge amount into our universities and the local economies around them (around £7bn a year) as well as providing the vital underpinning to both the cultural environment and finances within our institutions. Today’s international students are tomorrow’s business leaders and politicians and where they study influences where they will return to explore the potential for future engagement and collaboration.

Economic gains

A highly educated population is key to Britain’s success in the global knowledge economy. Within the UK, higher education remains attractive despite the new fees regime. Universities continue to serve the needs of 2.5 million learners in the UK leading to a wide range of social and economic benefits. Recent research suggests that the individual benefits of a first degree generate in the region of £260,000 for men and £315,000 for women in associated gains to the exchequer.

This outstanding performance of UK universities has been achieved whilst simultaneously realising sustained efficiency improvements and greater effectiveness over the past 20 years. In particular, following the Diamond Review in 2011, the targeted improvements demonstrated the willingness of the sector to embrace change and maintain our leading global position.

The future of the UK’s universities lies in their ability to continue to adapt to changes in the economy and society, whilst recognising that there is a need for government to continue to support our institutions in a sustainable manner.

Professor Sir Christopher Snowden is the President of Universities UK and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Surrey.