A Vice-Chancellor’s view – what should universities be ready for?

In this special article, Sir David Bell KCB, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, considers some of the significant trends affecting the higher education sector, now and in the future.

Never since the expansion of higher education in the early 1960s have UK universities encountered such exciting and changing times. It is no exaggeration to say that we are facing fundamental challenges to how they operate.

Firstly, we are undergoing very rapid marketisation in the UK – what we might call a kind of ‘shock therapy’. We are putting the student at the heart of the system. Recruitment caps are being abolished, state funding for teaching largely withdrawn, and the onus put on students to pay higher tuition fees.

There is greater competition and universities are marketing aggressively to survive and thrive. Real year-on-year turbulence in being seen in the recruitment market. The winners, it seems, will be those who maintain and strengthen their base of home students, while expanding in the postgraduate and international markets. But that is unlikely to be sufficient because, outside of the 'super-elite', no university can be certain of its position. 

Success will be inextricably linked to who can run a lean and efficient operation. Imagination will be called for as the best universities will diversify their income to fund outstanding teaching and pursue ground-breaking research.

Secondly, the global Higher Education market has never been so competitive. Many universities are now, in effect, multinational businesses. They are fighting against institutions across the world for funding, research collaborations and students. International undergraduates and post-graduate students are highly mobile and ambitious – willing to travel thousands of miles for high quality higher education.

The international cache of a UK degree is high, as is the standing of our research. But we cannot be complacent. Yes, there are the top UK universities with established global brands. Equally, there are many other highly regarded universities across the world who are racing up the league tables.

Thirdly, digital technology is transforming the teaching and learning experience. We are seeing the first generation of free Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, operating in the UK. Already well established in the US, there are big questions about how institutions can turn MOOCs into profit.

The bottom line, however, is that our own students expect content to be available to them electronically, as well as delivered in person. Perhaps too there is a moral imperative to open up our work to an even wider audience across the world.

And lastly, we need to face up to the controversial question of ‘research concentration’, not just in a UK context but internationally. In simple terms, should you have fewer universities doing more research? Tighter public funding may drive that. At the same time, universities of all shapes and sizes can do world-leading research. So excellence has to be the driver if we are to maintain and develop intellectual enquiry at the frontiers of knowledge. 

A central question remains. Can governments, worldwide, create the conditions for vibrant competition that benefits students, at the same time as intervening as appropriate to ensure that research quality is maintained? Those countries that can will become the new global elite.