A leading academic has rocked the boat of UK higher education by stating late last week that Britain has "too many universities", plagued by a "messy" and "muddled" non-system. Sir Roderick Floud, a former vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University and ex-president of Universities UK, which represents over 120 UK universities, pressed that many institutions are ineffective and need to focus more on research and education.
Writing in the Times Higher Education magazine, Sir Roderick said that universities are "trying to do too many things at once" in order to fund post-graduate research. This list includes organising conferences, catering, investing in the financial markets, maintaining historic buildings, promoting sport and offering careers advice, amongst many other things.
These controversial suggestions would hit the Greater London area most significantly, where there are over 40 universities within the M25 already and growing. Such proposals offer a stark contrast to the views of universities minister David Willets, who intends to expand on the number of institutes, highlighting there is a need to build new higher education campuses in areas where there are currently none.
The growth in number of institutions across the UK makes it harder for high quality courses and high quality students to be maintained. Some institutions, offering niche courses that do not meaningfully increase employability in today's job market risk pushing school leavers into taking degree courses over alternative, potentially more appropriate routes such as on-the-job training. Such courses, where the barriers to entry from an academic qualification prerequisite perspective are low, risk plunging their students into a mountain of debt without any reasonable chance of gaining employment on graduation that is sufficient to start paying it off.
Sir Roderick's views are not new. Back in September 2013, John Cridland, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) called for collaboration between universities and warned that smaller UK universities at the margins may risk closure. Speaking at a Labour Party Conference event, Cridland added "there are too many universities for our capacity to cope with them being separate".
Looking at various higher education data sources compiled by the Guardian back in 2012, the UK had 115 institutions for 2.6 million students. This compared to 80 institutions in France catering for 2.3 million students. Germany, on the other hand, possessed comparable institution per capita figures to the UK, with 2.4 million students over 108 universities. Comparisons with other European countries however are not that simple, not least because the cost of tuition outside of the UK is considerably cheaper, and proportional to this, the dropout rates are therefore much higher.
The number of universities in the UK will continue to grow with demand for the courses on offer. To tackle the issues of having "too many universities" is potentially missing the point. Having 150 institutions in the UK with the academic prowess of Oxford and Cambridge on the international arena would do wonders for the UK economy. Instead, focus should be placed on under-performing institutions. In a free-market, the best way to achieve this could be to ensure that prospective students are well informed on the costs and benefits of a degree course. Only then can value for money and true demand for university places be determined.