They have grown vast—and vastly expensive. Time to stop and ask whether something's gone wrongby Alison Wolf / July 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Among the world’s major institutions, only the Catholic Church has operated, uninterrupted, for longer than the universities. They are the source of how we think and what we know, and have formed western elites for centuries. They still do, but in the last half-century they have been transformed—in size, but also in their social impact and political importance. In England most universities have been enjoying a glorious 21st century. But the sector now looks politically isolated and unstable, with Brexit simply adding to a set of deeprooted problems.
Early medieval Oxford, England’s oldest university, had a few hundred students: rising to 4,500 on the eve of the Second World War. Today it has 25,000, and that makes it one of our smaller elite research institutions. University College London now has 38,000 students, twice as many as a decade ago. Manchester pips this at 39,000; Edinburgh and Sheffield are close behind. Other European countries are the same: the original University of Paris, centred in the Sorbonne since the 13th century, is now just “Paris IV”: one of thirteen large campuses spread across the city.. Bologna, the oldest university of all, enrols 82,000. Over the last half-century, the growth of universities has been, quite simply, staggering. This isn’t just a first-world phenomenon. Emerging economies are stacking up far more students at a given national income than developed economies ever did.
This means, of course, student votes can shift elections—witness Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise success in June in seats such as Canterbury (home of the University of Kent). It also has turned the UK’s university sector into a country-wide economic giant. Only the tech sector outpaces higher education’s growth rate around the world, and it employs far fewer people. You don’t, furthermore, get many tech start-ups in Lancaster or Huddersfield, but in both towns, the university is a dominant physical presence. Their combined annual turnover in the UK is now £33bn—on a par with legal services, and half as much again as pharmaceuticals. Universities bring £11bn a year directly into the UK economy in international payments, largely fees; and international students spend another £5bn on rent, food and leisure, making higher education one of our few reliable, huge and thriving export industries.